20 October 2020


In the COVID-19 emergency, the strong thrive and the weak die out in the policy space

A study shows that the ongoing pandemic has further increased the disparities in the representation of interest groups across Europe

by The Good Lobby


For many, this may reflect corruption and a lack of transparency. Yet when you take lobbying at face value – as we do at The Good Lobby -, it is a legitimate and necessary activity that connects civil society actors and public representatives. As such, lobbying has more to do with participation than corruption. That is what emerges from a study conducted by researchers from the Universities of Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Trinity College Dublin, which analysed the impact of the pandemic on the activities of interest groups. The research-based on an online survey – to which 1434 representatives of interest groups and firms in 10 different European countries responded – seeks to understand how the work of interest groups has been impacted by the pandemic. 


Among the most interesting findings is the high level of adaptability of lobbyists in the face of the pandemic: face-to-face meetings were swiftly replaced by remote, online connections. However, not all interest representatives were able to adapt with equal readiness to the new context where conventional access to policymakers was suddenly barred. In particular, non-governmental organisations and other civil society actors have significantly reduced their advocacy activity during the months in which the pandemic has overwhelmed EU member states.


The data collected by the researchers from March to May suggest that although 60% of the interviewees had continued access to the decision-making process and the public debate, only 20% increased their interactions with decision-makers and 20% claimed to have reduced them. 


Among those who have reduced their lobbying activity, we see above all that civil society organisations seem to have suffered most from the partial closure of institutions and the COVID-19 related emergency policies implemented by governments. There are also those who have been forced to completely interrupt their communication with public decision-makers. In this case, the percentage is much higher among NGOs than among those in the business world. This confirms that the largest, most structured and resourceful organisations were those that have best adapted their activity to the pandemic, in some cases increasing their lobbying activity, as opposed to smaller entities who have reduced their lobbying work. 


As highlighted by Professor Alberto Alemanno, founder of The Good Lobby, “perhaps the most revealing conclusion to emerge from this research is that an emergency situation is capable of worsening even further the systemic, structural inequality of access to the policy process between actors from the private world and civil society actors”. Thus, the corporations that have increased their lobbying activity during the pandemic are the same ones that have been most impacted by it. This shows that public policy institutions have disproportionately opened their doors to those who were particularly affected by the crisis. And yet, even in this case, lobbying during the pandemic was not the same for everyone: the non-profits most affected by the virus have not seen an increase in their access to institutions as much as the for-profit organisations did. 


The survey has also shown that the most lobbied-for issues during the pandemic were the health policies, the limitations on movement and public services (production, agriculture, commercial, etc.) necessary to contain the virus and the economic aid for the affected categories. The data varied from country to country and took into account how the pandemic developed in each EU Member State. For instance, in Italy and the UK, interactions with public officials on health policies were much greater than in Sweden, which was less severely affected by the pandemic. Nevertheless, some European trends can be glimpsed: the sectors that have put the greatest pressure on obtaining economic aid are those related to transport and hospitality, followed by art, entertainment and construction.


The last fundamental chapter discusses the measurement of the impact that lobbying activities have had on the political choices of governments during the pandemic. Given the difficulty of demonstrating who actually contributed to public decisions, the research is based on the perception of respondents about their success in influencing government policies. In some countries, in particular Ireland, Italy and the UK, the self-perception of respondents is that they have significantly influenced the political decisions, for example by meeting governments, ministries, parliaments and regions much more willing to listen to the requests of the various stakeholders. On the contrary, for those who have been lobbying in Sweden or the European institutions, the perception is that they have had little influence on public policies.


Nevertheless, even in this case, the asymmetry between holders of general interests and holders of special interests emerges: the latter category believes that they have influenced policy choices much more than non-profit entities. In fact, looking at self-perceptions of influence, the study found that organisations with fewer resources ‘rate themselves’ as less influential in lobbying the government’s pandemic policies. This confirms the general trend: the larger and more structured the players in the field are (in terms of staff members, resources and turnover) the greater their perception of having influenced public decisions.


At this point, the doubt arises spontaneously: wouldn’t it be problematic for us if political choices were influenced above all by the strongest and most structured organizations? Having more resources, being more professional and counting on better relationships with decision-makers does not necessarily mean representing more relevant interests or being on the side of the majority of citizens. The pandemic seems to have reminded us that we are witnessing significant gaps in terms of representation and that the objective of politics should also be to rebalance these inequalities that contribute to de-legitimizing political choices


Michele Crepaz, the co-author of the study, leaves us with a warning: “The authors of the study stress that these are short-term effects of the Covid-19 crisis,” and that, “given the disruptions caused by the pandemic, such imbalances might perpetuate and even crystallise in the long run. It is therefore urgent for decision-makers to pay greater attention to their approach to public interests  — even in times of a health and economic crisis.” Ultimately, Professor Alberto Alemanno – based on his forthcoming new paper Leveling the Participatory Field’ – argues that public authorities can no longer presume that all stakeholders, notably citizens and civil society groups, enjoy equal access to political institutions, as well as equal information, voice and ultimately influence. In his view, these research’s findings confirm the need to shift away from formal political equality towards substantive political equality that demands the design and practice of participatory policies capable of mitigating power disparities.