The Citizens’ Voice? When and How Advocacy Groups Represent and Affect Public Preferences

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One important criterion to evaluate a democracy’s performance is policy congruence, or the degree to which policy outcomes reflect the preferences of the broader public (Dahl, 1973: 1-2). The most classic democratic control mechanisms to ensure congruence are free and fair elections (Stimson, 1991; Wlezien, 1995). However, elections typically revolve around a limited set of ideologically-laden issues, are only held once in a few years, and can only retroactively punish unresponsive policymakers. Between elections, political parties are expected to mediate between citizens and elites. Yet, in an age of electoral volatility, diminishing party membership and the mediatization of politics, political parties face severe difficulties in performing this mediating role (Whiteley, 2011). An alternative, but largely underestimated mechanism through which representation works is interest advocacy (Rasmussen et al., 2014). Advocacy groups consist of movements and organizations with a political interest and which are external to the political system, ranging from NGOs, social movements and labor unions to corporate lobby groups (Baroni et al., 2014; Beyers et al., 2008). Where traditional channels of representation fail, advocacy groups thrive. They can become active on very specific or technical issues, their agendas are largely autonomous from party political cleavages and they can easily maneuver outside the purview of public scrutiny (Culpepper, 2010; Beyers et al., 2015). While advocacy groups are important channels of representation, little theoretical and empirical research has systematically addressed their function in aggregating and representing citizen’s preferences in political decision making across the globe (for recent reviews, see Burstein, 2014; Bevan and Rasmussen, 2017). Addressing this gap will be the focus of our workshop, which asks whether and under which conditions advocacy groups facilitate or cripple the connection between citizens and political decision making.

Advocacy groups aggregate the preferences of segments of society and represent these interests in political decision making, such as agenda-setting, policy formulation or decision making processes. Citizens are generally unaware of political decisions being made, or they often lack the knowledge and organizational means to get their voices heard at the political level (Burstein, 2014; Page and Shapiro, 1983). Advocacy groups can inform citizens and give them a political voice in political decision making processes, where they would otherwise stay silent. Political decision makers, on the other hand, are scarce for time and often need to rely on unreliable or incomplete information when estimating the preferences of their constituents. Advocacy groups can provide them with crucial information about public preferences and grievances with limited transaction costs for the policymaker involved (De Bruycker, 2015; Bouwen, 2004; Rasmussen and Reher, 2016; Bevan and Rasmussen, 2017).

As such, it seems that advocacy groups are a sheer blessing for democratic decision making, alleviating the deficiencies of classic channels of democratic representation. Yet, while advocacy groups can indeed be a source of policy congruence, they can also be an important cause of biased political decisions that run counter to what the majority of the public would prefer. Some illustrative examples include the lobbying scandals that make it to the news headlines. Democracy, or at least its participatory form, implies the equality of participation, where a diversity of interests and preferences are allowed access to political decision making procedures (Verba et al., 1995; Schlozman et al., 2012). In practice, there are stark inequalities between different advocacy groups and the interests they represent. A number of scholars have argued that the access to and influence on political decisions by advocacy groups is biased towards a privileged set of well-endowed interests (Danielian and Page, 1994; Verba et al., 1995; Schlozman et al., 2012). The interference of advocacy groups may thus under some circumstances be particularly beneficial for the well-endowed or affluent segments of society. In their function of representing societal interests, advocacy groups can thus both improve or cripple the democratic legitimacy of political decision making procedures. Further unveiling the conditions under which advocacy groups cripple or improve policy congruence is one of the main challenges our workshop seeks to tackle.

The congruence between public opinion and political decision making has been the topic of a rich literature spanning across the disciplinary borders of political science, public policy and sociology (see e.g. Wlezien, 2016; Burstein, 2014). There is a growing interest in studying the impact of advocacy groups on political agendas and public policy making. Advocacy groups have long been underestimated when assessing how public preferences come about and translate into political decisions. In the several important seminal contributions on policy congruence and responsiveness advocacy groups are either excluded altogether or only represented via the most powerful players (see e.g. Page and Shapiro, 1983; Wlezien, 1995; Gilens, 2012; Stimson, 1991). Existing scholarship can generally be divided in three camps: The more pluralist camp argues that advocacy groups are able to strengthen the link between public and elites (Dahl, 1973; Rasmussen et al., 2014); while elitists claim that specific groups’ interests prevail at the expense of public preferences (Schattschneider, 1960; Danielian and Page, 1994). Still, other studies present a more mixed view of advocacy group’s influence on policy-making and representation (see e.g. Burstein, 2014; Rasmussen et al., 2017; Bevan and Rasmussen, 2017; De Bruycker, 2017). Results are not only inconclusive, they also materialize in splendid isolation from each other in different research fields, ranging from political science to public policy and sociology. With this workshop, we explicitly aim to bring theoretical insights and methodological approaches from these different subfields together. Our workshop will explicitly incorporate both a bottom-up and top-down perspective on representation. Hence, we will explore not only how advocates and citizens attempt to influence policy but also consider how policy-makers may in turn attempt to change the hearts and minds of citizens and their respective advocacy groups in an effort to achieve political objectives (Slothuus, 2008; Zaller, 1992). Moreover, our workshop will engage with the limited existing work on how advocacy groups seek to manipulate public opinion to build awareness or support for their policy goals (see e.g. Kollman, 1998; Andrews and Caren, 2010; Dür and Mateo, 2014).

The workshop seeks to bridge, but also to expand the research on advocacy groups and policy congruence. We particularly welcome contributions exploring new frontiers in this research area, including studies of different types of advocacy groups, different polities around the world, and different stages in the policymaking cycle. Seeking out these new frontiers can contribute to further unraveling the mechanisms through which advocacy groups improve or cripple policy congruence. It can clarify the boundaries of external validity or elucidate the depths of case-specific sensitivities. This could have important normative implications as well by contributing to a discussion about the quality of democratic decision making and the role of advocacy groups therein. The presented research may also have practical implications as the presented findings can signal to citizens and policy practitioners which problems and biases in representation occur and how to deal with them. In sum, the scientific value of our workshop lies in bridging and expanding the study of policy congruence and advocacy groups, embedding and delignating it clearly in the political science and public policy literature. Finally, we also welcome studies that examine alternative routes to representation (such as parties and media) and their relationship with advocacy and policy congruence (De Bruycker, 2016; Allern and Bale, 2012).

We aim to bring together research that addresses the following questions: How and to what extent do advocacy groups succeed in winning the hearts and minds of citizens? Does the interference of advocacy groups lead to biased or more legitimate political decision making? And how can elites shape public and advocacy agendas?

The objectives of the workshop are:
1.    To explain whether and under which conditions advocacy groups improve or cripple policy congruence;
2.    To clarify the reciprocal (top-down / bottom-up) links between public opinion, political elites and advocacy;
3.    To bridge between the study of policy congruence and the study of advocacy across research disciplines and methodological approaches;
4.    To expand the study of congruence and advocacy to different types of advocacy groups, stages in the policy cycle and political systems, which have received sparse attention in existing research.

The need for a workshop on this topic at the ECPR joint sessions is exemplified by the growing number of international research projects addressing the links between public opinion, advocacy groups and public policy and the rising number of comparative and experimental empirical studies in this area. In this spirit we aim to bring together a mix of junior and more established scholars who are working on different stages of their research projects. The interdisciplinary character and bridge-building effort of our workshop is illustrated by the official endorsement it has received from the conveners of the following three ECPR standing groups: The Standing Group on Mobilization and Participation, The Standing Group on Interest Groups, and The Standing Group on Political Representation.