Private actors in politics and policy-making: Trespassers producing norms?

Jana Vargovcikova's picture
February 29, 2016
Czech Republic
Subject Fields: 
Political Science, Public Policy, Social Sciences, Sociology, Law and Legal History
Workshop for young researchers, CEFRES Research area “Norms and transgressions”

Deadline for Submission: 29 February 2016.

Decision notification due: 14 March 2016.

Date & Place: 12 May 2016, at CEFRES on Národní 18, conference room on the 7th floor.

Organizers: Jana Vargovčíková (CEFRES & FF UK) and Kateřina Merklová (FF UK)

Please send your CV, paper title and a 500 words-long abstract to:

The workshop will include among its discussants Hélène Michel (SAGE, Institut d´Études Politiques in Strasbourg) and Michael Smith (CERGE-EI, Czech Academy of Sciences).

For non-Czech participants, accommodation in Prague can be provided by the organizers.


Call for papers

Political activities of private actors have long since been an object of study in many disciplines of social sciences. In political science and sociology, the notion of “interest group” has served as a particular way of conceptualizing private actors when they try to influence public decision-making (Courty 2006; Grossman and Saurugger 2006). In the face of a growing diversity of entities undertaking such activities (e.g. individual companies, their associations, think-tanks, hybrid networks of companies and NGOs), some suggested that the definition of the term should be extended to encompass this variety of actors (Gray and Lowery 1996; Saurugger 2004) while others have highlighted the specificities of the role companies (Mclaughlin, Jordan, and Maloney 1993; Coen 1997; Hart 2008; Ciepley 2013; Landemore and Ferreras 2015) or lobbyists (Heinz et al. 1993; Kersh 2002; Michel 2005; Courty and Michel 2012) play as actors in politics. The distinction between the private and the public spheres, however, remains a common analytical ground to these works, even when they conclude by observing how the two interlock.

            In recent decades however, a body of literature has emerged that documents a growth in private actors’ involvement in politics and policy at multiple levels of government, which it relates to the changes in modes of governance towards more horizontality and flexibility in creating policy-making fora (Rhodes 1997; Héritier 2002; Hall and Biersteker 2002; Stone 2013; Peters 2009), but also to the state’s changing regulatory modes and capacities (Majone 1994; Lascoumes and Le Galès 2004; Lascoumes and Le Galès 2007).

            While some contend these developments testify to a “retreat of the state” (Strange 1996) or “hollowing out of the state” (Rhodes 1994), others consider that when outsourcing parts of their responsibilities, states are indeed keeping control over the process, and remain, in fine, agents of authority delegation and “accomplices” of the growing role of private actors (Wright 1994; Knill and Lehmkuhl 2002; Green 2013). Still, this rising part taken by private actors in politics and policy has to be read in the context of what has come to be labelled as a crisis of representation. As public authorities are striving to ground more firmly their legitimacy, they are opening windows of opportunity for actors still deprived of a formalized role in politics to negotiate their place in the public sphere.

            As the dichotomy underpinning most of this literature suggests, when private actors develop activities in order to influence the production of norms, they can be seen as transgressing borders between the private and the public sphere.

            Our workshop will focus on the management, the implications, and the meanings of such transgressions, both analytical and normative:  

            (1) since norm-production and oversight have been key elements of the classical distinction between the public and private spheres at least from the formation of modern state, the very foundations of such distinction may be questioned with private actors’ increasing involvement in public decision-making.

            (2) the analytical distinction, however, cannot entirely be separated from a normative one, the private actors’ involvement sometimes leading to a transgression of norms of democratic decision-making founded on publicity, legitimacy, equality and accountability.

The ambivalence in the perceptions of their role also seems to be growing sharper: On the one hand, private actors are increasingly providing not only technical, but also legal and legislative expertise, be it via expert groups or through the outsourcing of legal work by parties and administrations. They are labelled as partners of public authorities in the Public-Private Partnership projects, as collaborators (Donahue and Zeckhauser 2006), stakeholders or become entrepreneurs of norm-creation themselves (Green 2013). In reaction to broader pressures for companies to take responsibility over their impacts on society and the environment, CSR strategies have become a common exercise for large firms. Growing out of the CSR concept, the notion of corporate citizenship appeared in managerial literature and debates on the purpose of multinational firms, and initiated claims of rights based on these new ways of legitimation (Champion and Gendron 2005; Gendron 2014).

            On the other hand, accounts multiplied of private actors’ involvement in financing political parties, of their seeking public procurement contracts through practices of clientelism or corruption, and of their growing investments in lobbying. After decades of reluctance, the criminal liability of companies has entered criminal codes of most European countries: today, companies, and not only “deviant” individuals working for them, can be accountable for white-collar crime (Lascoumes, 1997). Correspondingly, the “fight against corruption” has been institutionalized at both transnational and national levels (Favarel-Garrigues 2009). As contextual as perceptions of corruption might be (Heidenheimer and Johnston 2001; Lascoumes 2011), countless scandals and affairs related to corruption (Thompson 2000; Offenstadt et al. 2007; Rayner 2007; Blic and Lemieux 2005) have stirred public indignation in the recent decades.

            Our workshop will bring together junior researchers (advanced PhD students and post-docs in political science, law, sociology and economics) who seek to address the changing role of private actors in norm-production. We particularly welcome papers, empirical or theoretical, related to Central and Eastern European contexts.

Areas of interest include but are not limited to the following:

1. How do private actors manage these transgressions both internally (vis-à-vis their shareholders and employees), and externally (public communication, interactions with public actors)? How do they adapt their practices to the rules of the public sphere? How in turn do they transform these very rules?

2. What role do intermediaries such as consultants, lobbyists, lawyers or advisors play in managing the transgressions between the private and public spheres, both as analytical and as normative categories?

3. How do various public actors manage private actors’ transgressions in the political sphere?

4. What does the growing involvement of private actors in politics and policy mean for the very dichotomy of the public and private spheres and the associated dichotomy of public and private actors? How can we grasp the impact of such developments on our understanding of democratic governance?


The scientific committee will include Hélène Michel (SAGE, Institut d´Études Politiques de Strasbourg), Michael Smith (CERGE-EI, Czech Academy of Sciences), Ondřej Slačálek (Charles University in Prague) and Ondřej Císař (Institute of Sociology, Czech Academy of Sciences).

For References and further information, please see the website of the workshop.

Contact Info: 

Jana Vargovčíková 

Charles University in Prague
Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense (cotutelle)

+420 224 921 400