NGOs' secrets to influence policymaking
There is a popular belief that corporates are better at influencing EU policymaking than nonprofits and NGOs. Yet, studies reveal that this acceptance is not true. Here is why.
The Beubble is back from the holidays! Did you miss your daily news and reflections on European politics? From today onwards, you will find me in your inbox every evening.
But before we go on with the present story, I have a question for you: When do you enjoy reading The Beubble the most?
Thank you for taking a moment to answer the poll. And now, back to our story…
Ask anyone, inside or outside of the political world, whether they think businesses or NGOs are the most successful to influence policymaking. Nine times out of ten, they will answer that corporates are most probably the stronger.
This popular belief has some ground: businesses have more resources (both financial and people). They are seen as the Goliath of influence, all-powerful, and to which politicians must land an ear. On the other hand, nonprofits must do with little budgets and a reduced - although passionate - workforce. If these Davids of policymaking are sometimes successful, it must be a coincidence, right?
NGOs vs Businesses: who’s stronger at policymaking influence?
The Brussels Bubble is full of nonprofit organisations of which the sole role is to advocate for a certain piece of legislation or position. Think about Greenpeace’s name & shame3 tactics, or consumer protection associations burying policymakers under mountains of data in favor or against a certain legislative text.
Let’s look at what makes nonprofits’ advocacy so good.
Why are NGOs so good at making policy?
According to University of Amsterdam’s Marcel Hanegraaff (cited by Sarah Wheaton from POLITICO), there are five reasons for this relative strength. I took the opportunity to amend them slightly, from my own experience.
Business specialisation and globalisation
Hanegraaf cites globalisation as a division force of the “business community”, leading to corporate lobbyists fighting one another, offering NGOs an open field to present their narrative.
In my opinion, this trend is to reinforce in the years to come. Businesses are more and more divided as companies specialise - is a tendency to reduce competition in global markets. As certain companies will choose different production methods, resources, and operating activities, they will advocate for policymakers to recognise these choices against those of their competitors.
Technocracy versus idiocracy?
According to Hanegraaff, “Corporate lobbying is historically more technical”, while NGOs can deliver more political arguments. This is particularly evident on topics with a sense of urgency (climate change, ethics rules, nuclear energy, etc.). NGOs can call up sensitive narratives, up to the point where it loses all rationality, as in the case of nuclear energy.
The role of the European Parliament
The European Parliament is full of politicians. I know, surprising. But politicians have one idea always trotting in their heads: “will I be reelected?”. NGOs and corporates play that card similarly, but the former do it better. Maybe because they have farther reach in political communities at home.
An NGO such as Greenpeace will have an easier time explaining to residents of Southern Italy why the recent vote of their MEP in favor of the extension of oil extraction permits is a bad thing, rather than energy company Eni can explain how this decision will create jobs and opportunities for the regions.
People at the Commission don’t have this Damocles sword above their heads: bad policy? - no worries, just do better next time.
Professionalisation of NGOs
Some NGOs can attract the best talents. In the world of the war on talents, climate-wrecking, socially-abusive corporations don’t attract motivated individuals anymore. Instead, these people will decide to work for organisations that promote democracy, green policies, health, etc. Nonprofits are better at advocacy also because they can attract the best people.
Are NGOs more acceptable partners?
POLITICO reported that Marcel Hanegraaff advanced the argument of a shift in mindset at the co-legislators, but without being certain of it - because it cannot be measured.
I can give you my educated opinion on the matter. Regardless of whether the Commission is keener in discussing with NGOs and nonprofits or not, it is certain that they are morally-acceptable partners. European legislators are constantly criticized for meeting with corporate representatives. They do not face the same scrutiny when meeting with NGOs. At some point, one starts to adapt: meet more of the “nice guys”, and refuse to see the others.
What’s in it for me?
OK, that’s a long post. Here is the nicest part. What can you learn and take away from what you just read?
I believe that anyone, given the right tools, can have a decisive influence on policymaking - just than mere voting or demonstrating. To do that, you can draw inspiration from the methods that work.
And clearly, we have a lot to learn from nonprofit organisations.
This is another tool that will help your cause, your project, and your clients. Advocate where your competitors are not, draft simple political messages, involve elected officials when it makes sense, attract the best people and resources, and become an acceptable partner.
That’s your roadmap to successful lobbying.
The beubble is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Mainly Interest Group Success in the European Union: When (and Why) Does Business Lose?, Andreas Dür, Patrick Bernhagen, David Marshall, 2015 and The Power of Nonprofits: Mechanisms for Nonprofit Policy Influence, Rachel Fyall, 2016.
From the abstract of Interest Group Success in the European Union: When (and Why) Does Business Lose?, Andreas Dür, Patrick Bernhagen, David Marshall, 2015