Testimonials from the European Commission: Does it matter how policymakers consult external stakeholders?

Policymakers often consult a range of stakeholders, such as interest groups representing businesses or citizens, before making decisions. But are the particular consultation tools used important to the results of this process? Based on a new study of the consultation tools used by the European Commission, Bert Fraussen, Adrià Albareda and Caelesta Braun suggests that despite the recent trend to use ‘open’ approaches such as online consultations, ‘closed’ consultation approaches in which decision-makers play a more active role often offer a more promising approach to involving a diverse set of actors.

The consultation of different types of actors, such as professional federations, NGOs, professional associations, companies and public institutions, is a central feature of contemporary governance. But although public officials today use a variety of tools to engage with external stakeholders, such as online consultations, workshops, and advisory boards, we have limited knowledge of how the combination of consultation tools is linked to stakeholder participation and the diversity of societal interests involved. .

However, this diversity of committed actors is absolutely crucial. As Tina Nabatchi has argued, by engaging a more diverse set of societal interests, public officials “give voice to multiple different perspectives and interests, enabling more thoughtful decisions that take a broader view of those who will benefit. or will be harmed by an action ”.

In a recent study, we analyzed how the European Commission involves external stakeholders in policy formulation, specifically examining how variation in consultation approaches shapes the diversity of external stakeholders who engage with policy makers in the world. ‘EU. We focused on organized stakeholders, including interest groups (citizen groups and professional associations), businesses and public institutions (such as local governments). Our sample included 41 regulations and directives adopted in 2015 and 2016.

The Charlemagne building in Brussels, Credit: Eddy Van 3000 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Conceptually, we can distinguish three different approaches to involve external stakeholders: namely “open”, “closed” and “hybrid” approaches. A open approach involves the use of tools accessible to all, and which allow (in theory) an unlimited number of actors to share their points of view and preferences. Internet consultations are a typical example of an open consultation approach.

A firm The approach refers to the application of tools where policy makers decide who sits at the table, and which only allow a limited number of stakeholders to participate. Think of an expert committee or an advisory board. The third option, a hybrid approach, combines tools associated with open and closed approaches. In this scenario, the consultation process could begin with an internet consultation open to anyone willing to contribute, followed by the establishment of an advisory board in which a limited mix of stakeholders from society (and possibly be completed by academic experts) is invited by officials to share their point of view. Alternatively, policymakers can first consult a limited number of stakeholders in a closed setting (eg a workshop), and then consult the general public afterwards.

Main conclusions

Our first key finding was that open approaches were rather rare (3 out of 41 regulations). We also found that the European Commission mainly applied closed (19) and hybrid (19) consultation approaches. When using closed approaches, the Commission can only consult stakeholders through a committee of expert groups. In contrast, in hybrid approaches, we observed that several closed and open tools were combined within a single political process. An example here involves the combination of online consultations with expert committees, as well as hearings or workshops with stakeholders.

In the second part of our analysis, we focused on the relationship between the two most frequently applied approaches, closed and hybrid, the diversity of engaged stakeholders, and the extent to which commercial interests (such as companies and federations industrial) outnumbered other interests in society. Not surprisingly, compared to closed approaches, hybrid consultation approaches (which combine open and closed tools) tended to involve a much higher number of external stakeholders. However, this increase in participation has not automatically led to a greater diversity of engaged societal interests. In contrast, it appears that closed approaches are characterized by a greater diversity of external actors and lower levels of commercial dominance.

Our study shows that a more open approach that engages a greater number of stakeholders does not always lead to greater diversity. It seems that to engage a more diverse set of external stakeholders, policy makers and public officials need to play the gatekeeper role by actively inviting specific societal interests and potentially combining multiple consultation tools. Although governments at national and European levels increasingly view internet consultations as a panacea for better engaging societal voices, our findings suggest that the complexity of stakeholder engagement and political participation can require a much more active role on the part of public officials.

For more information, see the accompanying Authors’ Document at Political Sciences


Note: This article gives the point of view of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Image credit featured: Eddy Van 3000 (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Shirlene J. Manley