International Encyclopedia of Public Policy and Administration - Vol. 2

By Jay M. Shafritz | Go to book overview

them when we go abroad. It means learning about them -- whoever they may be -- even in our own countries.



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INTEREST GROUPS. Associations of individuals who share common objectives and seek, through coordinated effort, to make direct contacts with public officials in order to influence administrative and legislative decisions of government. Interest groups are organized and composed of individuals affected directly by the operations of government agencies or private companies and have tangible stakes in their programmatic output and impact.


Individuals band together in organized groups because they believe they can promote their interests more effectively as opposed to working individually. Moreover, interest groups continuously monitor the activities of government and big business so that they can institute change or maintain the status quo when their interests are at stake. Unlike the general public, interest groups have easy access and contacts with administrators and legislators. Because of their expertise, desire, money, and commitment, interest groups have the ability to keep abreast with the activities of both public and private organizations. Interest groups continually monitor legislative and administrative activities of government to ensure that "no decision affecting their clientele goes unchallenged" ( Levine, Peters, and Thompson 1990, p. 201). Interest groups have the ability to influence how executives direct, manage, and control government operations, as well as influence the process of policy development and implementation. Walter F. Scheffer ( 1981) in his essay The Clienteles of Executive Branch Agencies noted the impact of interest groups on public agencies as follows: "Interest groups have carved out their niche in the bureaucracy; and since their support is crucial to many agency programs, their priorities come first" (p. 129).

In the international scene, the existence and influence of interest groups is more pervasive in the United States than in any country. A comparative study by Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba ( 1963, p. 246) of political culture in the United States, Britain, West Germany, Italy, and Mexico revealed that the formation of voluntary associations seemed to be more prevalent in the United States than in the other four countries. Almond and Verba's study further indicated that American citizens seemed more inclined to use "formal" and "informal groups" to influence public policy than citizens in the other four countries. Moreover, the French philosopher and aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville ([ 1835] 1964) in his book Democracy in America also observed that the use of associations is more successful in American than elsewhere. According to Tocqueville

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainment, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes, and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools (p. 31).

The exact number of interest groups in individual countries worldwide is difficult to know. In the United States, the estimated number is around 20,000 at the national level. No reliable estimates exist at the state and local levels. The number of individuals representing the various voluntary associations or interest groups operating in Washington, D.C., stood at 50,000 in 1980 with one or two associations added to that number weekly thereafter ( Hrebrenar and Ruth 1990). Most of the associations based in Washington, D.C., are represented by several agents with each specializing in a particular policy area of interest to the groups.

Distinction Between Interest Groups, Political Parties, and Social Movements

Interest groups differ from political parties and social movements in a number of ways even though at the outset they appear to share similar social and political goals. Interest groups seek to influence government decisions, whereas the primary goal of political parties is to capture and gain control of the major institutions of government. Interest groups and political parties develop a working relationship based on reciprocity, where each has some political commodity from which the other can benefit. The greatest strength of interest groups is their voting power and their ability to raise money to support elections; political parties thus need their support in order to gain control


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