“When does Government listen to the Public?” (GovLis) (Abbreviated project description)
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In democracies a central concern is whether government policy is responsive to citizen preferences. Recent decades of research give us ground for optimism by finding evidence of links between what the public wants and public budgets, policy agendas and policy outputs. However, this does not mean that we can conclude with unlimited optimism that “the state of democracy” is “healthy”. As emphasized by a prominent scholar of political responsiveness, “many studies of the impact of public opinion ignore everything (or almost everything) other than opinion itself, including variables that might be related to both opinion and policy” (Burstein, 2010). When considering additional variables, the strength of the relationship between public opinion and policy may therefore look different than the existing literature leads us to expect or may even be spurious sometimes.
Political responsiveness may have a “contingent nature”. Rather than simply assessing whether public opinion affects policy outputs, the broad research question that will be addressed by the GovLis project is therefore when a relationship between the two exists. This will be done by adding conditioning factors to studies of political responsiveness, which have received no or limited consideration in the existing literature.
Most importantly, it will be assessed how the role of interests groups active in different policy areas and on specific issues affect political responsiveness. It is striking how studies of political responsiveness have largely ignored interest groups even if it is well-known that policy-making venues may be crowded with special interests that are not representative of public opinion. Such groups often provide expertise that helps politicians complete their daily work and sometimes also direct campaign contributions that can be crucial for getting reelected. Politicians may therefore have a strong incentive to be responsive to interest groups rather than the general public, even if this means adopting particularistic policies that benefit only a few. By integrating data on public opinion, interest group activity and policy outputs, the GovLis project will scrutinize whether decision-makers prioritize such special interests over serving the general public and it will explore the conditions that make such behavior more or less likely.
The project will also consider other factors, which may affect whether public views are transmitted into policy and which have received limited attention so far. The first one is the character of the policy areas and issues themselves. Many of the prominent studies of political responsiveness merely regard policy areas as “units of analysis” and do not theorize what it is about policy character that explains differences in the level of political responsiveness between policies. The second is the system-level context. To date only a small number of comparative studies of political responsiveness have appeared, and there is still a lot of scope for exploring how the institutional context affects the linkage between public opinion and policy. The GovLis project will contribute to this literature by employing a design in which research is conducted in five different countries.
Decision-makers in representative democracies can benefit from knowledge of the conditions under which public opinion is likely to get translated into policy. These conditions say something about their chances of delivering policy outputs in line with the public’s wishes. Ultimately, such knowledge may affect their chances of reelection. It can also help them design future institutional structures and regulate relations with organized interests.
The project has support from a four-year Sapere Aude Grant from the Danish Council for Independent Research and a five-year VIDI grant from the Nederlands Organisation for Scientific Research.
|For more information about the Sapere Aude grant click here.|
|For more information about the VIDI Grant click here.|