citizens, stakeholders, publics, interest groups?

Last semester, as part of Tufts’ Water Diplomacy program, we discussed with MIT professor Larry Susskind a paper in which he advocated for “involving stakeholders before [important] decisions are made.”* In the ensuing discussion, I wrote down the following nouns that were used to describe the individuals who might participate in making these decisions, along with experts and policymakers: “the population,” “the public,” “publics,” “stakeholders,” “groups,” “interests,” “citizens,” “representatives,” “negotiators,” “people” and “everybody” (as in, “You have to get everybody at the table.”) These words may have overlapping referents, but they are not synonyms. They imply different strategies and different core values. To pick up a few:

Stakeholders may include organizations and agencies as well as individuals. They are defined by having an identifiable “stake” in the matter. It is possible to define stakes very broadly so that, for instance, we all have a stake in the sustainability of the globe. (Then everyone is a stakeholder.) But defining people in terms of their “stakes” attaches each person to some particular priority. You are a farmer, an environmentalist, or a government official. That encourages negotiation but not deliberation–if deliberation implies an openness to changing one’s values and priorities.

Citizens must be individual people, although in practice, actual participants in deliberations and negotiations are often representatives of organized citizen groups. The word “citizen” has varied resonances. It can mean a legal member of some defined political community (distinguishing them from aliens). It can mean a person who is not an official, for sometimes we hear about “citizens meeting policymakers,” as if the latter were not also citizens. It can mean individuals who are accountable only to themselves or to their consciences. In that case, it encourages high-minded deliberation rather than negotiation.

The public can mean the great mass of people minus representatives of a relevant in-group, such as the government, the university, or the legal profession. That usage makes the public a relative concept: I am in the public with relation to the US government but outside the public when Tufts University engages its local communities. Sometimes people use a plural form of the word to talk about “issue publics” or “mobilized publics.” Then I think the word means large communities that promote discussion.

Interest groups are usually defined as sectors of the population that can be well represented by formal organizations with mission statements and explicit objectives. Their objectives need not be self-interested; for instance, environmentalists and human rights activists can represent interest groups. The key point is that they can be counted on to pursue a particular objective, and therefore, as long as an organization successfully promotes that objective, it represents them. Interest groups may be organized democratically so that their members have a say in the organizations’ strategies, but that seems optional and it has pros and cons. (It favors voice over exit as a way of determining strategy.)

A community (in this context) seems to be a group of people who may be highly diverse in terms of identities, goals, and interests, but they interact with one another either directly or through intermediaries. So Somerville, MA, is a community to the extent that its very diverse residents interact on matters of common concern. It may also be a community in an aspirational sense: since its residents live in the same city, they should interact.

An interest group is different from a community because membership in an interest group requires support for the interest. A good member of a community seems to owe the other members some concern and loyalty but is not obliged to agree with them. You can belong to a community and seek to change its prevailing goals and values. In contrast, if you disagree with the core goals of an interest group, you do not belong to it at all.

*Susskind, “Water and democracy: new roles for civil society in water governance,” International Journal of Water Resources Development, 2013
Vol. 29, No. 4, 666–677

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.