Special interest groups (such as blogs) and democracy

Summary of article:

“How should the interest group process operate in a liberal democracy?

• Elected representatives and politicians should recognise a need for continuous dialogue between decision-makers and different sections of the public over detailed policy choices. Procedures for involving interest groups in consultations should cover the full range of stakeholders whose interests are materially affected by policy choices.

• The resources for organising collective voice and action in pressure groups, trade unions, trade associations, non-governmental organisations, charities, community groups and other forms should be readily available. In particular, decision-makers should recognise the legitimacy of collective actions and mobilisations.

• The costs of organising effectively should be low and within reach of any social group or interest. State or philanthropic assistance should be available to ensure that a balanced representation of all affected interests can be achieved in the policy process.

• Decision-makers should recognise inequalities in resources across interest groups, and discount for different levels of ‘organisability’ and resources.

• Policy makers should also re-weight the inputs they receive so as to distinguish between shallow or even ‘fake’ harms being claimed by well-organised groups, and deeper harms potentially being suffered by hard-to-organise groups.

• Other aspects of liberal democratic processes, such as the ‘manifesto doctrine’ that elected governments implement all components of their election programmes, do not over-ride the need to consult and listen in detail to affected groups, and to choose policy options that minimise harms and maximise public legitimacy and consensus support.

• Since policy-makers must sometimes make changes that impose new risks and costs across society, they should in general seek to allocate risks to those groups best able to insure against them.”

The some paragraphs from the article:

“Between elections, a well-organised interest groups process generates a great deal of useful and perhaps more reliable information for policy-makers about preference intensities. By undertaking different levels of collective action along a continuum of participation opportunities, and incurring costs in doing so, ordinary citizens can accurately indicate how strongly they feel about issues to decision-makers.

So sending back a pre-devised public feedback form, writing to an MP, supporting an online petition to the government, or tweeting support for something indicates a low level of commitment. Paying membership fees to an interest group or going to meetings shows more commitment, and gives the group legitimacy and weight with politicians. Going on strike or marching in a demonstration indicates a higher level of commitments still. A well-organised interest group process will allow for a huge variety of ways in which citizens can indicate their views. …

This area of policy-making has been stable for many years, with occasional fringe scandals. Two small changes have taken place recently. The 2014 Lobbying Act introduced an official register of paid lobbyists operating with MPs in Westminster and in touch with Whitehall departments. But this was on a rather restrictive basis, affecting especially paid-for lobbying firms and some groups with developed governmental or parliamentary liaison operations.

The lobbying industry (estimated by some sources to be worth £2bn a year) also remains self-regulated. For a period during the bill’s passage (2013-14), the Cabinet Office proposals seemed to threaten to make academics, universities and a wide range of charities advocating for policy changes register too. But after much criticism this proposal was fought off. However, the legislation is still somewhat controversial – particularly among charities, who complain that it stifles them before election campaigns. …

Nobody now claims that the UK’s interest group process is an equitable one. There are big and powerful lobbies, medium influence groups and no hopers battling against a hostile consensus. Democracy requires that each interest be able to effectively voice their case, and have it heard by policymakers on its merits, so that the group can in some way shape the things that matter most to them. On the whole, the first (voice) criterion is now easily met in Britain. But achieving any form of balanced, deliberative consideration of interests by policymakers remains an uphill struggle. Business dominance is reduced but still strong, despite the shift to cognitive competition and more evidence-based policy-making.”