European umbrella groups are expected to collect and aggregate their members' preferences and communicate these viewpoints to policymakers. Adrià Albareda Sanz and Bert Fraussen examine whether and how group leaders involve their members in the formulation of policy positions. They also highlight how membership inequalities and the policy issue at stake complicate this process
BusinessEurope warns against fines for hiring illegal workersPolitico.eu
European consumer organization calls for ban on greenwashingEuronews
European Banking Federation says EU stress tests are 'tough'Bloomberg
Headlines like these show how important are umbrella groups like BusinessEurope and the European Consumer Organization in EU politics. These groups, or peak associations, are organised at European level. Their members are interest groups such as national business federations, consumer groups, or NGOs, from a variety of European countries. The representative nature and sizable constituency of these groups means they are important actors contributing to efficient, effective and legitimate EU policy processes.
Most people would assume that these groups speak with a homogenous voice, and that this would, as the headlines above suggest, enable them to 'warn', 'call', or 'say' something about particular policy issues. Indeed, the capacity to speak with a single voice is a key assumption behind the democratic and political importance of interest groups and associations. Yet the process of collecting and aggregating the preferences of such groups' membership base is not always straightforward, and often suffers from collective action problems.
Our research focused on qualitative interviews with leaders of more than thirty European umbrella groups. We found that the nature of policy issues under discussion, and the varying levels of resources among members, lead to biased membership involvement in policy position-taking.
While leaders are aware of these dynamics, their efforts to mitigate unequal participation seem limited. This raises questions about the representative potential of interest groups, and the legitimacy of their policy claims.
Our study examines how member involvement varies depending on the policy issue under discussion. We distinguish between particularistic, controversial and unifying issues.
In particularistic issues, only small subgroups of members pursue their own specific interest without involving the rest of the members. Controversial issues, meanwhile, arise when policy issue outcomes generate winners and losers among group members. In unifying issues, all members stand together to advance a single position, forming a cohesive front.
When dealing with particularistic issues, leaders involve only a subset of members who often share similar policy preferences. Hence, leaders tend to bypass part of the membership base and advocate policy positions relevant only to a specific member subset. As an umbrella group leader highlights:
We're not going to send [a policy position] around to the entire membership if most of them find it irrelevant. You don't want to spam them either. We're working on so many things at the same time. (…) So, we try to only communicate with those who we think might be interested in it.
Leaders also find that controversial issues – although the exception in groups’ policy agendas – are most difficult to resolve. This is because their outputs might generate inequalities among members. As the quote below illustrates, leaders must act as honest brokers to reconcile different positions among members:
When there are conflicting perspectives among certain members, we take the discussion away from a bigger group. We get them on the phone or in a room at the same time, or separately. And if they still cannot agree then we have to make a decision on whether to give up that point and just delete it from the response or to show both sides: 'some of the members think A, other members think B'.
Lastly, unifying issues are the most common among umbrella groups. This is, in large part, due to leaders' strategic issue pre-selection. Thus, when selecting priority issues, leaders look for those on which members share a similar view. Importantly, however, these issues may not always be the most urgent or critical for the future of that profession, industry or cause.
Of course, the most powerful group members tend to dominate internal debates. Leaders openly acknowledge that more resourceful members engage more frequently and actively in internal processes to determine the group’s policy position.
These findings align with a power-dynamic approach. They highlight how control within umbrella groups will be 'taken over by those who can constantly commit themselves, and others will fall behind':
Those [members] who can afford to monitor all those issues, then they can get actively involved in all or many of the policy positions. And this might be around 30 to 40% of our members. These are mostly the largest or more resourceful [members].
Umbrella group representatives are aware of this unequal participation. Yet their efforts to mitigate potential biases that arise from the establishment of policy positions are limited:
I am not going to babysit anybody. If [members] do not raise any issue related to our policy position, then I will not do anything about it. Unless I am aware of something. Then of course I would reach out to the members and check. But if I’m not aware and I’m not made aware, then I cannot do anything.
Regardless of the nature of the policy issue under discussion, leaders often take silence from members as tacit approval of the proposed policy. This might be problematic because less resourceful members are more likely to remain silent, even when issues of great importance to them are on the agenda.