Rules of Engagement: Interest Groups, Social Movements, and Citizen Consultation in Policy Development



The phrase “special interest” flies off the tongues of politicians and political pundits like a vicious epithet on the level of “international terrorist” or “Wall Street fat cat.” Interest groups are portrayed in the political discourse as inherently corrupt influence peddlers, sullying the purity of the democratic process with undue lobbying pressure and unseemly amounts of money. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reality of the role of interest groups in the policy process as understood by policy analysts and political scientists is significantly more nuanced than the image presented by talking heads and campaigning politicos. Interest groups, along with evolving systems of public consultation, are one of the main methods by which many issues of public interest are inserted into the policy agenda. This post will provide an overview of the present state of the literature on the roles that interest groups and public consultations play in the development of public policy.


Though interest group theory has its roots in the 1908 publication of Arthur Fisher Bentley’s The Process of Government, it was not until that work’s rediscovery in the 1940s and 1950s that group theory became a dominant force in North American political science (Newman & Tanguay, 2002). At this time, the dominant paradigm of group theory was pluralism, a school of thought which held that the interests of groups in liberal democratic societies were represented in the political process by voluntary associations asserting pressure on the government. In this model, government policies, regulations, and laws were viewed as “a crude barometer of the balance of group interests at any one moment” (Newman & Tanguay, 2002, p. 390). This balance of group interests was seen to tend towards an equilibrium; a political market in which “government decisions [would] not routinely favour one group over time” (Newman & Tanguay, 2002, p. 391).


As quickly as pluralism became the dominant model for interest group theory, so it came under attack for allegedly simplifying and idealizing the democratic process. Critics characterized pluralism as an excessively deterministic model that minimized the significance of ideology and non-rational motives in policy formation, as well as presenting a rose-tinted view of a fair, perfectly balanced political market. To many critics, this suggestion of balance and equality mongst groups in the political market rankled, particularly at a time in history when swaths of the citizenry were shut out entirely from the political process. While group theory would persist as an essential model within policy analysis, the pluralist model fell by the wayside in favour of more nuanced, multi-faceted models.


Two key concepts underlying the later-twentieth century development of group theory are policy communities and policy networks. Policy communities are comprised of “the wide set of actors interested in and informed about a policy issue, who share at least some common language, but may be opponents on the issue” (Pal, 2010, p. 258). Policy networks are a subset of policy communities, with a narrower membership comprising only those actors with “a consistently higher level of interest in the policy issue, [who] interact regularly” (Pal, 2010, p. 259). These concepts allow for more complex understandings of the interactions of interest groups, governments, and citizens. Examples of policy network models range from the diffuse Pressure Pluralist Network, where a state agency autonomously sets policy and a dispersed and weak assortment of associational interests compete for government interest, to the rigid and centralized Corporatist Network, where a strong and autonomous state formulates policy in close consultation with a small selection of powerful associational interests (Pal, 2010).


Along with increasingly complex models of interaction, group theory has grown to encompass a wide range of pressure group types, such as interest groups, pressure groups, lobbies, single-issue groups, citizen’s groups, and public interest groups, each with its own relation to policy issues and the policy formulation process. Furthermore, an entirely new category of policy actor has developed since the 1960s to encompass expressions of policy preference that come from outside traditional networks of power: the social movement. Social movements, such as the recent Occupy Wall Street, tend to be more diffuse in structure, following a more “grassroots” approach that emphasizes non-traditional political action (Newman & Tanguay, 2002). Their participants are more likely to view themselves as acting outside existing structures of political power, rejecting the supposed self-interest of typical interest groups and the legislative machinations of lobbyists and political partisans. Though this self-conception is debated (Newman & Tanguay, 2010), it is an essential characteristic distinguishing social movement theory as a subset of interest group theory. With the model of social movements, political occurrences such as the American Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Protests of the Vietnam era can be understood in a way not possible in traditional, insider-oriented models of policy analysis.


Concurrently with the growing interest of policy analysts in studying how interest groups and social movements can act in furtherance of the public interest, governments and political activists throughout the democratic world have developed increasingly involved methods of citizen engagement and consultation. Governments seek to directly engage citizens in the process of policy formulation for a variety of reasons: to ensure that the broad public interest is represented where policy networks are increasingly complex and governments increasingly decentralized, to ensure that non-governmental expert opinion is heard on issues that demand technical expertise, and even simply to strengthen government relations with citizens and restore damaged trust in the political process (Pal, 2010).


Methods of consultation and citizen engagement are diverse, and any approach comes with its advantages and disadvantages: engagement is not a panacea. A continuum of citizen engagement demonstrates the different levels of engagement with the public governments can participate in. The International Association of Public Participation has created a model to represent these different levels from informing citizens to empowering them through methods of more direct democracy. The choice of method of consultation depends heavily on the goals of the exercise the groups are participating in. In addition, the different types of networks discussed above can influence the manner in which consultation and advisory activities can present themselves.


The benefits of engaging in consultation and advisory processes with citizens are numerous. Policy advice can be strengthened through inclusion of stakeholder opinions. By providing clear information about the “in-development” policy to interested citizens, governments can prevent unexpected negative reactions. Incorporating the opinions and beliefs of citizens in the policy development process can improve trust in government, reassuring a cynical populace that their voices are indeed heard by their government. However, there is a risk that if methods of engagement are seen as being purely ceremonial and citizen input is not seen to influence policy, then trust in government will actually be harmed by the process. Two of the major obstacles to successful public consultation are a lack of time and money: engaging the public requires a larger time frame, which is not always available to governments attempting to address an urgent gap in existing policy.


Citizen consultation and engagement is not simply a hobbyhorse of good government activists, or a theoretical domain for political scientists: it is an active and developing project of governments around the world. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a 2001 policy brief entitled “Engaging citizens in policy making: Information, consultation, and public participation,” which provides guidelines to member states for sound citizen engagement policies. “Strengthening relations with citizens is a sound investment in better policy-making and a core element of good governance” (OECD, 2001). Including citizens allows those who are disadvantaged to have their voices heard, moving beyond structures in which interest groups dominate policy conversations. The question remains if the consultation and advisory processes undertaken by government are done in earnest, or are intended simply as placation for an angry public.


These issues are undoubtedly complex. However, in an increasingly complicated policy environment, advocates for scientific evidence-based policy must take it upon themselves to develop a strong grasp of the theoretical and practical conceptions of group theory and public consultation in order to maximize the benefits of information and knowledge transfer.



Newman, J. & Tanguay, A.B. (2002). Crashing the party: The politics of interest groups and social movements. In Citizen politics: Research and theory in Canadian political behaviour (387-412). New York: Oxford University Press.

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2001). Engaging citizens in policy making: Information, consultation, and public participation. Retrieved from

Pal, L. (2010). Beyond policy analysis: Public issue management in turbulent times. Ottawa: Carleton University Press.


Authors:  Katie Olthius and James Ross

This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the new graduate course, “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making,” offered at Dalhousie University.

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