Feb 28, 2009

Power politics

The role of lobbyists is the ugliest among the interest groups that seek to influence public policymaking
By Dr Arif Azad
Public policy – despite being formulated, legitimated and enforced by governmental institutions – is enriched and refined by input from a medley of interest, pressure and civil society groups. This factor has led to an increased focus on the role of organised groups in public policymaking. As a result, literature on the role of these groups in public policy has proliferated over the years. The important role organised groups play in public policymaking is also manifest in the mushroom growth of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in both service delivery and policy advocacy. The work of John Walker, for example, testifies to an enormous increase in the number of NGOs and citizen action groups in the United States in recent years.
Although service delivery function of organised groups may not have a direct impact on public policy, enough literature is available to show the power of lower-end service delivery bureaucracy in refining public policy options. The 'Group Theory of Public Policy', an influential analytical model, begins with the premise that interaction among groups is the warp and woof of politics. According to Earl Latham, a noted 'group theorist', "what may be called public policy is actually the equilibrium reached in the group struggle at any given moment, and it represents a balance which the contending factions or groups constantly strive to tip in their favour."
The 'Group Theory of Public Policy' views policymakers as reacting perpetually to pressures emanating from various interest groups and lobbyists, bargaining and negotiating their way to a policy that agglutinates a broad range of interests. Central to this theory is the concept of power: which of the groups commands more influence and power in public policymaking. For example, during the formulation of Britain's National Health Service Policy, doctors' trade union – British Medical Association – used its influence and got many benefits. Power is dispositional; it is an ability to do something. Robert Dahl defines power as something that coerces other to do what they would not do otherwise. In his words: "A has power over B to do something B would not do otherwise."
Groups involved in public policymaking can come in different forms and labels despite sharing the singular aim of influencing the policy. The groups that are central to the policy process range widely from single-issue groups and lobbyist to pressure and interest groups. The influence and entry points of different groups in a political system depend on existing intuitional arrangements.
The work of Richardson and Jordan shows that a weak British parliamentary system with a strong executive affords entry point to interest group to influence public policymaking. Interest groups are especially effective in countries with a strong legislature, such as the US. Another opening also allows groups to enter and influence public policymaking: weak response of citizens to a public issue. This is most likely to happen in cases where policy is concerned with technical subjects in which either public knowledge is limited or public interest is, historically, low. The British atomic policy serves as a good example: only scientists played role during its formulation and implementation. Similarly, during the formulation of Pakistan's Human Transplantation Act, doctors – particularly urologists – played a major role.
Conversely, established policy advocacy groups can use enhanced media and public interest around a public issue to enter a particular policy area. For example, during various recent humanitarian crises, helped by increased media attention and heightened public interest, previously unknown advocacy groups entered the policy area. The example of South Asian Tsunami readily comes to mind in this connection; many small British advocacy groups were able to enter the policy area on the back of media-propelled crisis.
The media can also become a major actor in public policymaking. For example, the media in Pakistan, due to its reporting of the lawyers' movement, became an important actor vis-à-vis the independence of judiciary. Hence, Gen (r) Pervez Musharraf's double-edged extirpation of the judiciary and media in a single stroke through the imposition of 'emergency' on Nov 3, 2007.
Groups can also enter the policymaking process if they make themselves indispensable to governments in public policy areas in which governmental expertise is either lacking or not up to the mark. This is most likely to happen in poor countries where governmental expertise in a whole range of policy issues is lacking due to either budgetary constraints or bureaucratic lethargy.
The downside of too much reliance on outside expertise is the ever-present fear of what is called 'interest group capture' of a policy field. For example, under the Bush administration, the US foreign policy was widely believed to be hijacked by think tanks, such as Brookings Institution, Heritage Foundation and Centre for American Enterprise. These think tanks, staffed by neocons, literally dictated the US foreign policy during George W Bush's eight years in power as the American president.
In some areas of service delivery, government can also facilitate the entry and entrenchment of groups with special expertise in the policy and delivery processes. This has happened more recently worldwide, with neo-liberal governments contracting basic service delivery functions to groups in an ideological drive to slim down the government. For example, the housing market previously administered by the British government has now been handed over to private housing associations. Similarly, in Germany, after the Second World War, the government entered into an agreement with trade unions to ensure the implementation of the industrial policy.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of the 'Group Theory of Public Policy' are the marginal groups with fringe interests that are not normally reflected in policy options. Public policymaking affords such marginal causes or groups to insert themselves into the policy process. For example, over the years, groups working on racial discrimination and ethnic minority rights in Britain have been able to contribute to the policy process because it is open to plural ideas.
By far the most effective notorious interest group in public policymaking are the professional lobbyists. The study of lobbyists by Milbraith, titled The Washington Lobbyist, finds that the US capital was awash with lobbyists who tend to influence public policy their way through various means. The lasting and enduring influence of lobbyists, despite strong criticism in recent years, can be gauged from a recent book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, titled The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. The book outlines a detailed case of how pro-Israel lobbyists bend the US foreign policy in the favour of Israel.
(The writer, a policy analyst, is a fellow of the Institute of Social Policy and a visiting member of the Foreign Trade Institute of Pakistan.

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