European and national level interest groups in higher education: a meta-organizational perspective
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European policy-making is characterized by significant institutional and issue complexity. It is often described as a multi-level and multi-actor governance arrangement, marked with a strong involvement of other non-state actors, such as interest groups (civil society organizations, trade unions, stakeholder associations etc.) in policy formation, implementation and evaluation.
Interest groups are organizations tasked to influence policy-makers. There are interest groups operating at the national level as well as those operating at the European level, with a significant subset of the latter being European associations of national-level interest groups, such as European University Association or European Students Union.
Research on interest groups has thus far primarily focused on their relationship with, and impact on, policy-makers and, to a far lesser extent, on a few elements of their internal dynamics. However, we do not know how interest groups develop policy positions from which they try to influence policy-makers and to what extent these policy positions reflect the interests of their members. Related to this, and particularly important for European policy-making, is the lack of attention to the fact that many European interest groups are actually associations of national-level interest groups, i.e. that they have a multi-level character and thus constitute meta-organizations (organizations of other organizations, see further below) whose internal dynamics cannot be adequately understood utilizing mainstream organizational theory assumptions based on the idea that organizations have individuals as members.
This paper will present the theoretical framework of a larger research project designed to address these two gaps by analysing the development of policy positions and internal organizational dynamics of three European associations of national-level interest groups working in the area of higher education.
The theoretical approach that will be employed for answering these questions extends the literature on the interest groups’ concept, types, status and strategies, and is built on two pillars (a) policy analysis literature, more specifically the multiple streams framework and (b) organizational studies literature, more specifically the meta-organizational perspective. The multiple streams framework, building on the idea of bounded rationality and the so-called ‘garbage-can’ decision-making model, here adapted to a multi-level governance context, is particularly useful for analysing policy formation under the conditions of institutional and issue complexity. The meta-organizational perspective allows for a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the internal dynamics of organizations which have other organizations as their members, in particular with regards to the relationship between membership, identity, status, decision-making structures and leadership autonomy of the members and their meta-organizational association.
The paper will (1) conceptualize and operationalize the key concepts for the study – policy positions, membership diversity, decision-making, leadership autonomy, organizational identity, status and strategy – for both European and national level interest groups, and (b) present a set of propositions concerning the relationships between these concepts.