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Managing and Understanding Complexity in the European Union’s Public Consultations

European Politics
European Union
Executives
Interest Groups
Political Participation
Communication
Survey Research
Policy-Making
Adriana Bunea
Universitetet i Bergen
Adriana Bunea
Universitetet i Bergen
Reto Wüest
University of Geneva

Abstract

Consultations with stakeholders constitute a direct communication link between decision-makers and policy-takers and an important channel through which relevant policy feedback and input is received by policymakers. Consultations represent a key step in the formulation of public policies and an important source of political information and technical expertise. Public consultations in particular became a rich source of information in the age of e-governance when they are frequently employed by executive bureaucracies as online participatory events and conducted with the help of online surveys. As shown by the EU’s public consultations regime, online consultations enable the participation of thousands of remotely located stakeholders, allowing them to provide feedback on tens of discrete consultation questions and policy issues. This represents a unique opportunity for policymakers to gather relevant information about stakeholders’ policy demands, political support and technical feedback. Yet it also raises the challenge of managing and processing the informational richness and complexity ensuing from the consultation process. We address this conundrum by asking the following: when and how can the complex and information-rich policy space described by stakeholders’ participation in online consultations be reduced to a basic, low-dimensional policy space that reliably and validly describes the aggregate distribution of stakeholders’ policy preferences? We answer this question by focusing empirically on the study of the European Union’s public consultations regime which is widely recognised as operating a state-of-the-art online mechanism for consulting stakeholders. We analyse several online consultations from different policy areas. Theoretically, we innovate by drawing on the well-established and methodologically sophisticated literature on spatial models of choice and decision-making. Methodologically, we innovatively employ three different estimation strategies to study online consultations and comparatively assess their performance regarding the manner in which they are able to reduce information complexity while also providing reliable and valid measures of the aggregate distribution of stakeholders’ policy preferences in a low-dimensional space. We contribute to the well-established literature on spatial models of politics and decision-making, and to the emergent literatures on stakeholder consultations and policy complexity in the EU and beyond.