Academic perspectives and experience-based insights
It’s not rare that only a handful of issues dominate an election period. And because of this, it’s also not rare to find that more and more citizens are becoming issue voters. However, this is no coincidence. For democracies around the world, interest groups are highly active around election times to ensure certain policy issues are heard about, voted for, and ultimately acted on.
While some groups give money or endorse particular candidates; others may help candidates without any endorsement. Some groups may engage in direct contact with politicians to shape their positions or a particular issue, or seek to increase voter turnout within specific constituencies by contacting prospective voters or campaigning within certain districts. Some groups may choose to run local or national advertisements on the radio, internet or television. And while some groups focus exclusively on one of these activities, others do them all.
But why is this the case? Why do interest groups engage during election times anyway? After all, elections—although a pivotal moment in politics—can create high stakes for interest groups. Becoming involved in an election could run the risk of a group being associated, or falsely-associated, with a political party, potentially jeopardizing a group’s reputation. This is especially risky for groups if they affiliate themselves with a losing party, as this decreases their chances of shaping future policy debates.
Yet at the same time, there are many benefits that election times can bring. Groups may also be motivated to engage in elections to ensure their political allies are elected or re-elected to support certain issues, or endorse candidates to safeguard political access following the vote. Besides that, citizens are typically very politically engaged during election times, making it a unique period for groups to potentially receive more attention from citizens and persuade them to vote for certain issues, or convince parties to make their individual concerns a collective policy priority to voters.
Collective lobbying efforts to ensure maximum visibility of specific policy asks
To make better sense of this topic, during my Master in Public Administration (MPA) at Leiden University, my thesis, supervised by Dr. Bert Fraussen, explored how interest groups politically engage during elections. Through a single case study on Canada’s 42nd national election, I analyzed 31 national environmental groups (ENGOs). Interestingly, for the first time in Canada’s electoral history, environment was ranked a top issue, triggering a unique case to investigate how interest groups may have affected this.
My findings revealed that most groups sought to be active during election times in order to reap the benefits of influencing parties’ upcoming policy plans. However, not all groups held equal capacities (i.e. resources) to effectively engage political parties, the media, and citizens about their policy asks. To remedy this, it was found that groups not only strategized based on their own interests, but rather in coordination with one another. In this way, this approach created a sort of unofficial ‘division of labour,’ that divvied up lobbying activities to maximize exposure of their policy priorities. This was particularly effective as it played to the strengths of each ENGO, given an election’s short time period. For instance, while some groups prioritized an insider lobbying approach such as consulting directly with political parties, other groups simultaneously prioritized outsider approaches such as utilizing media to mobilize citizens on issues. This served a purpose of efficiency, and ensured a level of organizational maintenance, particularly for lower resourced or member-based groups, who could now concentrate their resources to satisfy members’ requests, which they may not otherwise be able to balance independently.
Altogether, my research showed that elections are important times for interest groups to oversee and react to policy positions of political parties, and to inform the public. So despite preconceived ideas that elections are times for interest groups to step back due to (potential) political costs, groups showed high levels of engagement and were able to successfully strategize to achieve policy and organizational wins.
Elections as a pivotal point in political strategies
After completing my research, I wanted to see for myself how such activities actually take shape within interest groups. For me, this meant seeking experience through two internships; one in the public sector and one in the private sector.
In the public sector, I interned for the World Resources Institute (WRI), a global environmental think tank. Situated in The Hague, I worked at its liaison office, which supports and maintains partnerships for its seven other programmatic offices worldwide. Partnerships existed amongst various governments; multi-national businesses such as Google or Ikea; universities; NGOs; and other intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations or the World Bank, to name a few. In the private sector, I interned at Heineken’s Headquarters in the Global Governmental and Public Affairs team in Amsterdam. Here, the team facilitates external relations, lobbying and communications with policymakers and industry players, as well as provides guidance to its operating companies around the world on political matters.
When comparing these two internships, it became clear that despite each group holding their own distinct political motives, one thing remained fundamentally the same: both actively seek to influence policy environments they operate in, and use elections as one point of departure to determine their lobbying plan of action.
For instance, as an intern, this involved collecting background research and regularly reporting on current events, national policy environments, and tracking political party platforms (i.e. policy agendas) where each group operated in. In doing so, I noticed that while my task at WRI was to understand how policy changes could positively or negatively affect core partnerships; my work monitoring policy environments at Heineken was used to craft lobby plans to ensure costs of doing business were lowered or maintained. So, while both groups used elections as a surveillance tool to impact policy, one aimed for cost-savings for business practices (Heineken) and the other for financial assistance or funding for programmatic work and initiatives (WRI).
The importance of an in-depth understanding of the constantly changing political environment
To this extent, both my MPA thesis work and internships confirm that a key activity of interest groups is to closely monitor their political environments. And although this may happen in different ways for different reasons, it’s clear that groups must understand what’s happening around them, and be cognizant of how their respective political institutions impact their work. Looking back at these experiences, my MPA has prepared me for positions in both sectors by sharpening my analytical skills to be both critical and adaptable in recognizing these patterns in the workplace. That said, I think students and scholars of public administration can provide valuable contributions to both private and public sectors alike. So, the next time an election that matters to you is approaching, take a look at what groups are doing (as opposed to only parties), you may be surprised what you find, and what this tells you.