The political uses of civil society in bureaucratic policymaking: The European Commission and migration policy
In mid-2020, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs (DG HOME) established the Expert Group on the Views of Migrants in the Field of Migration, Asylum, and Integration (EG), becoming the first public administration (to knowledge) to directivity involve migrants and migrant-led organisations in a closed consultation forum. This decision is surprising. Existing studies find that bureaucracies use restricted consultation formats, which give civil society stakeholders (CSSs) privileged access to policymakers, primarily to meet information and implementation needs and bolster their technical/performative reputation (cf. Binderkrantz et al. 2021; Gornitzka & Sverdrup 2015). However, I argue that the EG serves more political/symbolic than output-oriented purposes. Indeed, DG HOME has traditionally avoided drawing on civil society for expertise and support (only four of its 28 expert groups include NGOs). It has, instead, invested in in-house research and carefully selected its interlocutors to craft a reputation as an unbiased authority in migration policy (Hadj Abdou & Pettrachin 2022).
If we agree, as this case suggests, that the inclusion of CSSs in restricted fora can serve multiple purposes, under which conditions can we expect specific purposes to prevail? To answer, I propose an analytical framework integrating resource-exchange and reputation-based explanations for stakeholder engagement with neo-institutionalist theories (e.g., Bouwen 2002; Braun 2012; Bunea & Nørbech 2022; Deephouse et al. 2018). The framework develops a taxonomy of functions that CSSs fulfil in bureaucratic policymaking by specifying their relation to organisational mechanisms of legitimation. I distinguish between substantive and symbolic functions, indicating whether CSSs are part of concrete or symbolic organisational mechanisms aimed at meeting societal expectations, and between performative and normative functions, indicating whether CSSs are part of mechanisms addressing performance or moral legitimacy challenges. Which function(s) prevails will depend on (1) organisational goals (gain, maintain, defend legitimacy) and (2) tasks (regulatory or non-regulatory), (3) the level of congruence between the legitimacy evaluation criteria used by different audiences (regulative, performative, moral, cultural-cognitive), and (4) the nature of the legitimacy challenge (performance or value challenge).
I specify observable indicators, derive expectations for Commission DGs, and use the EG as a plausibility probe to test the framework. This qualitative approach, complemented by process-tracing and structured interviews, allows for an in-depth, detail-rich analysis that traces the causal mechanism behind DG HOME’s decision to consult migrants in an expert-group format. Confirming expectations, I find that the EG fulfils symbolic-performative and symbolic-normative functions in legitimation mechanisms of coercive isomorphism and decoupling. By illustrating how the EG is used to signal moral integrity, this finding leads us to qualify the idea that restricted fora serve an organisation’s technical/performative reputation.
Besides making an empirical contribution to the literature on migration governance (indeed, recognising migrants as valid policy interlocutors is crucial to foster agency and belonging), this paper makes a conceptual contribution to improve understanding of stakeholder participation in bureaucratic policymaking. Furthermore, by systematically linking CSSs to legitimation mechanisms, its analytical framework may prove useful for studies on the consequences of stakeholder participation for bureaucratic legitimacy (cf. Ashforth & Gibbs 1990).