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Citizens lobbying: the rise of DIY politics

Citizens lobbying emerges as a plausible, yet largely unnoticed, form of civic participation that complements rather than antagonizes representative democracy.

September 2017
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Executive Summary

Elections aren’t sports events with winners and losers, despite what much of the media would like us to think. As our nations grow increasingly polarized and political discourse more toxic, an electoral victory – be it in France, the United Kingdom or elsewhere – no longer ensures, nor translates, into societal acceptance and popular support for change.

Once upon a time, when communication and access to knowledge were limited, delegating the entire workings of democracy to elected representatives made sense. But things have changed. Today, a growing number of people not only demand but also play a more active role in political life through tiny participatory acts such as likes, shares, signatures, charitable contributions and other forms of micro-donation. In this new participatory landscape, characterised by reduced costs of participation and lower transaction costs, greater numbers of citizens – who have traditionally not participated – are becoming more politically active, or at least – amid digital political campaigning – actionable. We’ve also become politically more promiscuous. Indeed, today’s digitally-empowered citizens express multiple allegiances to issues, without necessarily adhering to a political organisation. They may support heterogeneous causes, often without political motivation.

Traditional politics can’t channel these new expressions of mobilisation. And so we become more critical of political parties, but also more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system. How can we have any influence on public policy at all?

We urgently need alternative, unconventional forms of participation capable of channeling citizens’ pluralistic and increasingly chaotic input into the political conversation to bring us closer to our representatives - and to do so in between elections. We’re disillusioned with traditional politics, but also there’s an unprecedented resurgence of interest in politics. Something has to fill that space.

Given mainstream political parties’ reluctance to renovate, this new space has been left to two major, yet disparate, forces which were the first to realize that widespread use of the Internet might affect political participation. On the one hand, self-proclaimed “direct democracy” movements – such as Italy’s Five Star Movement, Germany’s Pegida-powered FDDV, Podemos in Spain – try to capitalise on popular discontent by promising to replace representative democracy with direct democracy and establishing new channels of communication with their community membership. On the other hand, a new generation of political advocacy groups, embodied by online petition platforms, such as MoveOn, Avaaz, Change as well as the UK-based 38degrees and other civic tech companies, have penetrated and shaped the emerging political space in between elections. Within this wide-scale phenomena, there exists a panoply of experimental initiatives that keep mushrooming across liberal democracies.

Despite their novelty and potential in shaking up the political ecosystem, these new actors struggle to translate their mobilising capacity into meaningful, inclusive and resilient forms of political participation. Technology-enabled experiences of direct democracy haven’t proven to be viable responses to many of society’s challenges. Too often they distort popular input to match their leaders’ goals. Meanwhile, online petition platforms are one-click forms of participation that may make us feel better about ourselves and perform some virtue-signalling. Yet they fall short on their promise to offer inclusive and individual empowerment, by failing to mobilise the citizens’ talents, expertise and desire to gain a voice into the policy process. Have you ever asked yourself what happens after you sign up for an online petition?

Lobbyist citizens

If there’s anything we have learned from recent and unfolding political events, is that – given their growing ability and desire to contribute to the political debate – citizens expect and deserve more comprehensive forms of participation. Research supports this claim by demonstrating that societies which enable citizens to be assertive and critical of public authorities tend to have governments that are more effective and accountable.

What better way then to render citizens assertive than to turn them into lobbyists? That’s the provocative suggestion I made in my new book, Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society.

While most people associate lobbying with the “bad guys,” such as Big Tobacco or powerful financial interests, lobbying can be a powerful force for good as illustrated by several successful instances of citizen lobbying in the UK, Europe and around the world. Think of Max Schrems, the Austrian student who challenged Facebook’s use of private data and won; Antoine Deltour, the French accountant employed by PwC Luxembourg who, after denouncing the tax rulings illegally concluded by the local authorities with major companies, has been advocating for the protection of whistle-blowers across Europe; or of my own students, who petitioned the EU Commission to put to an end phone mobile roaming charges in 2012. These are just a few, promising instances of citizen lobbying that can potentially redesign the relationship between citizens, their elected representatives and the institutions themselves.

A citizen lobbyist taps into the repertoire of techniques generally used by professional lobbyists to promote a cause he or she deeply cares about. Rather than merely voting, signing a petition or making a donation, it is the citizen who sets the agenda, prompts policymakers to act - or reacts to their agenda - and puts forward a solution to the identified problem.

Yet to many, “citizen lobbying” sounds like an oxymoron. It would be if you believe that lobbyists represent – by definition – the interests of the few rather than the many, meaning they can never be a force for good. While organized interests, notably corporations, have historically monopolised lobbying, lobbying is no longer the prerogative of well-funded groups with huge memberships and countless political connections. Indeed, today lobbying is not only legitimate but is also essential and therefore encouraged in a democracy.

With their action, citizens turned lobbyists may take full advantage of these many avenues of participation and act as equalizers. By countering the undue influence of the special interests of the few on the policy process, they may help elected representatives to better identify the public interest of the many. This does not mean that citizen lobbying can realistically give all citizens an equal voice, but rather that all elector-elected relationships are going to be structured from that idea. With their actions citizen lobbyists can offer a trust-based feedback mechanism that can nudge officials to do their jobs better.

Seen from this perspective, citizens lobbying emerges as a plausible, yet largely unnoticed, form of civic participation that complements rather than antagonizes representative democracy. Unlike other forms of engagement taking place in between elections, it is rooted in a set of constructive, truth-oriented actions driven by civic sentiment as opposed to electoral gain.

As automation is set to free us from many duties, time has come for citizens to get acquainted and play their newly-discovered job.

Alberto Alemanno
Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law & Risk Regulation, HEC Paris