Surveys reveal that there are great differences among citizens in their membership of political associations. Such differences plausibly lead to a better representation of interests of privileged citizens compared to other citizens. We examine the demographic groups (in terms of education, gender and immigration background) that tend to be members of interest groups. We also investigate the relation between the membership profile of associations and the propensity of interest groups to be routinely approached by policymakers. The results of our elite survey of Dutch interest associations indicate that relatively well-educated citizens and men are better represented in interest groups. Patterns of underrepresentation are not further exacerbated by the outreach of policy-makers, except that interest associations with a relatively large female membership are less likely to be consulted.
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Please also note that our approach is conceptually distinct from studies of descriptive representation of elected representative of legislative bodies. We do not assess the descriptive characteristics of interest group leaders or lobbyists (e.g., Junk et al 2020) nor the similarity of these with the demographic characteristics of their members or the general population. We therefore draw on studies on differences among citizens in (electoral) political participation rather than studies of representation in public claimsmaking or parliaments.
One could think of other sources of inequality in political mobilization, such as age. Yet as we lack reliable data on this demographic related to the membership of the interest groups in our sample, we do not discuss this in this paper.
Our data give credence to some of these patterns. Appendix Table 9 shows the averages per group type (professional, union, identity, public and leisure associations) and, for instance, shows that professional associations tend to indicate to have relatively highly educated members and the public interest groups tend to be supported by a relatively female membership.
In the appendix and for illustrative purposes, we assess several broad differences among group types in terms of their membership.
The demographic characteristics identified in our RQ pertain to individuals (e.g., a company, as group member, does not have a ‘gender’). At higher levels of conceptual abstraction, one could similarly speculate about relevant ‘demographic’ characteristics related to members of business interest associations (e.g., large / small companies, capital/labor intensive, and so on). This is not the focus of our RQ and creates conceptual incoherence. We therefore excluded non-citizen groups from our analysis even though we did collect such data for business interest associations as well.
Note that we also checked the answers and they seemed mostly intuitively correct to us: for instance, respondents choosing the maximum category in ‘education’ of members include learned societies such as the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and International Society for In Vitro Methods; in the ‘mostly men’ category, we find representatives of male dominated professions such as the Union of Dutch Veterans (UVV) and Dutch Shipmasters’ Association (NVKK); in the maximum category on ethnicity (i.e., ‘mostly native Dutch’ (allochtonen)), there are a number of local heritage associations such as the Committee on Skûtsjesilen (SKS) (Frisian Sailing competition) and the Foundation for Utrecht Castles.
This merits discussion of two important choices regarding our operationalization of access: (1) our focus on ‘being contacted’ rather than ‘seeking contact’ and (2) our focus on policymakers rather than other venues or means of access. As regards the first, both types of measures are available in the survey, and we think that it is more likely that the ‘being contacted’ indicator validly reflects the actual access received compared to questions about interest group frequency to seek contact, given that numerous contact attempts may not be reciprocated in actual policy access provided in terms of meetings, committee participation, and so on. The survey does not ask about ‘having contact.’ As a robustness check, we examined the ‘seeking contact with policymakers’ indicator in the appendix (see appendix 8). The results are largely in line with the stricter access measure we use here. Second, we focus on (self-reported) direct contact with policymakers rather than participation in parliamentary or bureaucratic commissions, or presence in other arena’s such as the media, which may be measured through actual observation in relevant sources. To start, the assessment of interest group access on the basis of, for instance, agendas of parliamentary committees requires the identification and choice regarding the relevant venues to which interest groups may have access. Given the fragmented nature of the policy process, any choice in this regard has limitations related to the particular institutional locus of each venue. We therefore consider that a more general, not institution-specific formulation ‘policymaker,’ which can include politicians, civil servants, and other officials at any level / function of government (‘beleidsmaker’ in Dutch) to more validly reflect the broad policy access of groups than institution-specific indicators. The plausible superior validity of this measure outweighs the potentially somewhat lower reliability of self-reported measures compared to observational data.
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Hanegraaff, M., Berkhout, J. & van der Ploeg, J. Exploring the proportionality of representation in interest group mobilization and political access: the case of the Netherlands. Acta Polit 57, 254–276 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41269-020-00185-1
- Interest groups
- Political access