Lobbying & Covid-19
New evidence shows Coronavirus crushed citizen groups across Europe
NGOs lose the lobbying race during Covid-19 outbreak
By Wiebke Marie Junk & Michele Crepaz
The Coronavirus crisis exerted a major social and economic shock in countries worldwide, and thereby, disrupted the work of many interest organizations, such as business associations, firms, labor unions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), that try to have a say in public policy.
Our new study quantifies these disruptions caused by the pandemic and finds that not all interest organizations have been equally hard-hit by this crisis. In the race of who gets a voice in the public debate and political decision-making during the pandemic, NGOs (including cause groups, charities, public interest and citizen groups) have been the relative losers, while labor unions and associations of professionals were clearly in the lead.
Our analyses are based on an online survey that was completed by over 1,400 interest groups and firms in 10 European policies: Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the European Union (EU). The survey captured different effects of the pandemic on the ability of interest organizations to mobilize and adapt their political advocacy to the government responses to Covid-19. The survey assessed, for example, the ability of interest groups to mobilize, keep access to important venues of public policy, and, ultimately, to influence important crisis management policies in their country.
We find that — across the board — NGOs do not perform very well on these measures.
First, a much larger share of NGOs (26%) reported that they had to put their political advocacy work on hold at some point during the pandemic; compared to business associations and firms (16%) and professional associations and labor unions (16%). When political advocacy resumed for these organizations, NGOs were slower in mobilizing on Covid-related policy issues. While a clear majority of business groups, as well as professional associations and unions (66% and 67%, respectively) mobilized on these issues already in March when — in many countries — restriction measures had been either just introduced or were being discussed, only half of the NGOs (51%) were able to become active on these issues this early. In fact, a larger share mobilized only later at the height of the crisis (22%) or not at all (27%).
Second, and crucially, these mobilization problems seem then to have affected the ability of NGOs to access important venues of public policy. We considered access to the media, parliament, government and the bureaucracy — be it concerning Covid-19-policies or other issues. In the survey, we measured how often an organization had access to these venues before and after the spread of the Coronavirus in Europe. This measure takes the value of zero, when the frequency of access has remained stable, is negative when access to a venue of public policy has decreased during the pandemic, and positive when access has increased.
Across all four venues, a larger share of NGOs has decreased their access as Figure 1 shows. In contrast, a higher share of professional organizations and unions have increased their access to all four venues. Regarding access to the bureaucracy, for instance, 22% of NGOs have decreased their access to this venue, compared to just 11% of professional associations and labor unions, and 16% of business associations and firms. Conversely, 23% of business groups and 27% of professional groups register an increase in access to the bureaucracy, while this only holds for 17% of NGOs.
This access disadvantage for NGOs holds even when we analyze these changes in multivariate analysis, controlling for the perceived level of affectedness, staff resources, mobilization problems and the frequency of lobbying. Our most striking finding is that, even when an NGO declares to be most highly affected by this crisis (e.g. because the pandemic disrupted its activities and the ones of its members), its access-increase is significantly lower than for professional organization/unions, or business organizations with the same rating of perceived affectedness. In this sense, the pandemic has had significant distributional consequences regarding the categories of interests that get a voice in public policy.
This loss of access to NGOs might here mean that some positions — arguably those representing more diffuse interests or public goods — find less expression in policymaking and public debates, and ultimately, have lower influence on outcomes. Notably, when we asked NGOs to self-evaluate their impact on Covid-related government policies on a 0–10 scale, we find that, on average, they declare a lower impact on policy (3.2 points) compared to business organizations (4.1 points) and professional organizations (3.9 points).
Taken together, we interpret these trends as worrying: During the pandemic, NGOs seem to have faced higher mobilization problems, access disadvantages and lower perceived policy impact, compared to economic and professional interests. While the latter were surely key stakeholders during these challenging times, we would like to stress the importance of avoiding systematic biases at the expense of non-economic groups. The continued inclusion of different societal groups in the policy process could be crucial for the perceived legitimacy of government policy, including measures to stop this pandemic.
If some societal interests and their constituencies feel excluded, they may be less willing to comply with government restrictions, because they perceive the process which led to their introduction as unfair and biased. Moreover, continued disadvantages for NGOs could entail that certain issue areas of public interest, such as environmental protection or human rights, are down-prioritized in future policies. For these reasons, it is, in our view, important to question and continuously re-evaluate whether decision-makers are striking the ‘right’ balance between economic needs and diffuse interests — even in times of a health and economic crisis.
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About the project: The Interest Representation during the Coronavirus Crisis (InterCov) Project was initiated in May 2020 with the aim of assessing the effects of Covid-19 on interest representation and political advocacy. The team of researchers distributed a comparative online survey to a stratified sample of over 6,000 interest groups and firms in nine European countries and actors at the European Union level. 1,437 organizations completed the survey to the end. For more information about the project, including our report on findings from the survey, see: https://www.wiebkejunk.com/intercov-project
Wiebke Marie Junk, Assistant Professor, University of Copenhagen
Michele Crepaz, Assistant Professor, NUI Galway
Marcel Hanegraaff, Associate Professor, University of Amsterdam
Joost Berkhout, Associate Professor, University of Amsterdam
Ellis Aizenberg, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Amsterdam