When we first started with the idea of our research project on the representation of public interest in banking, we found it crucial to avoid a top-down approach mostly involving experts. For this reason, the project aims at gathering – along the two years of research – input from civil society organisations, including whenever possible those not yet involved in banking. The objective is to generate as many innovative ideas as possible and to understand why many groups do not get involved, and how to improve this and public interest representation more generally.
In this first year of the project, we held three workshops in June and December 2015: the first in Brussels, the second in London and the third in Berlin. The fourth one will soon take place in Paris.
Each workshop gathered about 12 participants representing campaigners, researchers, trade unions and activists for a day of lively and constructive discussions. Interestingly, the diversity of groups suggested similar views when it comes to public interest representation and the misrepresentation of non-industry interests and each of the workshops also provided new thoughts and ideas for the project.
What is public interest representation?
Among the key outcomes of the workshops was that the representation of public interest can be understood as a process by which different voices are being expressed through a number of channels resulting in “public interest representation”. As such, public interest is a social construct that often and wrongly reflects the most powerful interests. Also, reflecting on why some interests do not get represented, the way the debate tends to be presented (complex, technical and suited to experts) is felt to exclude non-expert interests, which is necessarily the majority of people. On the other hand, public interest implies a notion of participation, which challenges the reality or perception of banking regulation as a complex and expert subject. It also challenges the way regulation – and as a consequence banks activities and forms – is being initiated: very often in closed circles, away from public oversight and public debate.
The concept of channels of representation was also debated: the media, the European and National parliaments, the European Commission’s policy process involving stakeholders, the governance structure of banks themselves. Different interests have different access to these channels, and their impact varies. To date, existing channels fail to represent the plurality and diversity of interests as the level of complexity does not allow for the participation of most concerned interests.
How did the participants assess the workshops?
Interestingly the process of organising the workshops also showed that despite an interest in the matter as expressed by several groups, it was difficult to dedicate a full-day of work to a topic that was not central to their mission. We took this as information in itself for the project: resources are definitely an issue when it comes to the involvement of civil society organisations on banking.
Overall, be it for the research team and for the participants, the assessment was positive. All participants said they would like to be kept informed and involved in the project moving forward, including an explicit willingness to participate in the second phase of the project (policy recommendations), as foreseen in the project plan.
Also, as each workshop involved several academics working on civil society and finance, there was also a great occasion to strengthen the connection between civil society groups and academia – something that is being often pointed as essential on both sides. For academics the opportunity to meet and confront their thinking with representatives from civil society organisations was much appreciated. For civil society more academic research into ways of increasing participation in regulatory processes helps to reflect on actions and their efficiency. In addition, it helps to build connections with academics providing credible research to back their own advocacy work.
To a large extent, our view is that the success of the workshop not only lies in the output it provides to the project: it is also to be related with its usefulness in building-up a network as we go and in favouring the development of a Europe-wide movement of organisations involved in building up a vision of a banking sector that would be at the service of society. We therefore consider the networking aspects of the project – building solidarity and new ways of working together as equals – to be as important as the contribution to the research.
To be continued!