Has the pandemic helped smaller voices to be heard more during negotiations?


Happy New Year! EIPA’s negotiation team wishes you all the best for 2022.

As the third year of the pandemic looms, we have all found ways to make teleworking and online meetings efficient but also structurally tenable for the long haul. For us, this meant the production of a monthly blog series. Over the last 12 months, we tried to analyse the different impacts the pandemic could have on negotiations as a whole. As you might recall, we analyse the changes using the Rubik’s Cube analogy and the work of Lewicki, Barry & Saunders (2011). In a nutshell, the three authors argue that a successful negotiator has to take into consideration three complexities: the procedural (what?), social (who?) and computational (how?) complexity. Just like with a Rubik’s Cube, the good negotiator will be able to manipulate the three axes to unlock and achieve the desired outcome. In the course of the past months, we have discussed many aspects of the changes possibly induced by the pandemic in the light of those complexities. This blog post constitutes the second to last of our series on the influence of the pandemic on negotiations. We are very excited to announce the forthcoming publication of comprehensive guidebook on F2F and online negotiations, combining all the analysis we provided over the last year. However, despite mentioning it in other blog posts, there’s one topic we haven’t had the chance to analyse yet. This month, we take a closer look at an often-underestimated actor in negotiations: the small actors. You might wonder what a small actor is: this is hard to define exactly. It is always in comparison to others. Take a good look at the backgrounds of your next interlocutors and see how you compare to them.

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Influence of smaller negotiating actors before the pandemic

Before entering into the impact of the pandemic, it is important to first consider what was the actual influence of smaller actors in the negotiating arena prior to Covid? The bottom line here is somewhat trivial: did size really matter before Covid? Well … sort of.
Most experts agree to say that smaller actors have fewer resources – be they financial or manpower. A good negotiation position and strategy takes time and energy. Not every administration or small NGO can hire a few people to constantly work on those matters, especially when they are technical. So, de facto, small actors have a harder time making themselves heard during a negotiation process. What’s more, some countries benefit from a traditional legitimacy when it comes to negotiating (think of, for instance, France and what the French still often called the ‘language of diplomacy’). Besides, even without the traditional legitimacy, some countries/companies have a very strong economic weight giving them a particularly strong best alternative to a negotiated agreement and thus a good leverage before the negotiation has even started. This is not to say, however, that smaller actors never have power. Strategies of influence have always existed and been adapted to the size of the stakeholders. Thus, in the European context for instance, research tends to demonstrate that smaller states are in a logic of coalition-building to advance their interests. Moreover, they would prioritise some dossiers over others, and use their votes strategically to convince other Member States to follow their lead on their own set priorities – a sort of ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ if you prefer. Additionally, research by Kassim et al. (2001) demonstrated that a country’s degree of centralisation played a role in their approach to negotiations. This additional factor results a double axis with the comprehensive (everything is important) and selective approach (priorities on some dossiers) on one axis and centralised to decentralised on another. This, for Kassim et al., is what really helps in understanding how a country will choose its national position.


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Before the Covid era, smaller actors had the opportunity to heavily rely on strategies of ‘outside lobbying’. If you’re unfamiliar with these concepts, Greenwood (2011) and Mahoney (2007) explain that outside lobbying can roughly be summarised as all the strategies of influence that exist from outside the institutions: mediatisation, mass involvement, demonstration, etc. The advocates are not directly in contact with policymakers. Inside lobbying is the exact opposite. Private actors are familiar with the institutional settings and do not need to rely on public involvement to push for their interests. Inside lobbying is more frequently attributed to very technical and specific policy domains. When the private actor is big enough, the ideal is obviously to use a mix of both techniques.
So, where does this leave us? Did the pre-pandemic status quo significantly change for the small actors since the pandemic?

Inside lobbying: taking advantage of the formalities

While the switch to online platforms brought its fair share of negative aspects it can be, for the smaller actors around the table, a real opportunity. Indeed, online platforms are great for one particular point: they don’t really allow anyone to informally chat and/or change the speaking order, for instance. In other words, the silver lining behind the ‘e-panoptic’ situation of an online meeting – i.e. everyone sees everyone at any time without ever really knowing if they’re actually being watched – is precisely that it more or less equalises the position of everyone, regardless of their size in the negotiation. Without idealising it either, we can fairly argue the move to online platforms led to a higher level of some sort of ‘procedurisation’ in the way formal negotiations were going. It’s harder than before to override the speaking turn of a smaller actor, or act as if they did not exist at all.

Similarly, the end of informal chats could benefit them. While actors with a great access to informal chats with the different stakeholders on the issue at hand were more likely to be able to push their interests, it seems easier now for a smaller actor with less access to be able to push their interests. However, this is not to say that we put a final point to all informal chats – it’s just moved from corridor talks to app talks – but, as we wrote a few months ago, the pandemic prevented many people from enlarging their social groups, thus heavily relying on the existing networks. This last point also goes to show how, at the end of the day, there is a limit to the benefits of formalities. Yes, since the pandemic started formal procedures rose in prominence – with a greater use of written procedures at the EU level, for instance. But, no, the importance of informal access has not been completely replaced either.

Outside lobbying at its finest

So, you might ask, if the pandemic has not significantly helped smaller actors get a better grip in inside lobbying, has their more important experience in outside lobbying at least benefited them during the pandemic?
The question is fair, particularly in light of the recent big mobilisations for social causes. As we wrote above and to simplify a little, outside lobbying strategies are traditionally used by the small private actors – although some countries resort to outside lobbying campaigns too but that’s a different matter – especially non-lucrative actors.
With the pandemic and the renewed use of social media as a means to connect, the non-profit sector was able to make itself heard more than ever by a larger share of the population. Being able to use social media and their inherent codes is not something that can be improvised – although when done right it can yield great results – and the smaller private actor had thus a significant head start on the matter. Moreover, if you take the example of the ‘online march for the climate’, we quickly understand that not only are those kinds of movements initiated by small actors who have been working in the field for years, but their success is also due to the very small cost it takes for anyone to join. More than ever, it is easier to gather people around – be they from their room, two streets apart or from a completely different part of the world, giving movements an unprecedented echo. To take one other example, this phenomenon was very clear during November’s COP 26. Countless environmental groups organised online gatherings; a number of associations that would not have been invited to the COP were, this time, invited to join online seminars to offer their opinions in the debates.

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However, when the dust finally settles, one thing remains: although there are definitely more windows of opportunity for smaller actors to attract masses and to convince society their cause is important to stand up for, it is unclear at the moment whether their new-found digital weight actually translates in real life negotiations, as the outcome of the COP26 disappointedly proved.

The fine line between being heard and being listened to

This month, we wondered if the pandemic had changed anything in the old status quo in place for smaller actors in the negotiating area. Our analysis brings a mitigated answer to this question.
At first glance, the switch to online platforms certainly helped to equalise everyone’s position in the formal setting of a negotiation. While smaller actors have always relied more heavily on outside lobbying strategies and had an advantage when it came to mobilise online, it does not seem to significantly translate in negotiation outcomes. The shift to online has given the impression to smaller actors that they could use the opportunity to make themselves seen and heard … but there is a line between being heard and being listened to.
That being said, the ‘size’ of your counterparts in a negotiation is one of the many variables to factor in while creating your strategy of negotiations. Next month, for our last blog post on the changes induced by the pandemic on negotiations, we will bring all the different elements back on the three axes and offer a first general conclusion before the publication of our guidebooks. See you next month!

This blog is written by Frank Lavadoux, Olivia Brown and Mathias Delmeire.


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