Push and Pull of Power and Influence – Making Sense of the Research

Now that we know the constraints imposed by law, institutions, global context and discourse, let’s focus on outcomes and their reasons. Here we study the actor’s role in producing outcomes. You will be led to reflect on the impact of your previously acquired info on the actor’s power and influence as it relates to your story.

Let’s start by reiterating that decisions about public issues do/are NOT:

  • Come in black boxes
  • Emerge from pristine minds concerned with public good
  • Written on a black slate
  • Develop because wise public servants become attuned to new needs and have a desire to address them
  • Emerge because an advocacy group makes an especially coherent and telling argument, or scientists offer new knowledge

These things matter but decisions are always subject to the push and pull of actor’s power and influence.

Research on actors can be difficult. We may have several intuitions about their power and motivations, but what about when they can’t get what they want regardless, or when an actor is influential when no one expects it to be so? Or when another actor, normally influential, is seemingly unimportant. Sometimes even happenstance is an important source of decision, such as people being golf buddies!

Example one: the five major banks in Canada wield significant power. But in the matter of the government permitting bank mergers and higher degrees of foreign ownership, these banks have not yet been able to muster enough influence to achieve their goal.

Example two: the two-person leadership of a small group has successfully carried the torch for public broadcasting in Canada for many years, and it has been remarkably successful despite having few of the attributes of power.



Power here will be understood here only in a limited sense, only as attached to actors.  Some actors are powerful, at least some of the time, while others are not, at least most of the time. Needless to say, actors’ power is not a constant and is affected by context, constraints and systemic factors.


If power refers to a characteristic of actors, influence will be understood here to relate to what actors, powerful or not, are able to achieve regarding a particular public issue. Any actor can be said to be influential to the degree that it is able to achieve its intended goals given the constraining factors.

Economic heft  (see also chapter eight)

Economic heft here refers to the size of an actor in terms of the resources at its command and the scope of its actions locally, nationally and globally.  Shell Oil has economic heft.

Economic clout (see also chapter eight)

Economic clout refers to the influence of actors: their capacity to exercise their power in particular situations or contexts and to their capacity to pose threats to governments and their economies. The major banks have economic clout as recent history demonstrates.

Associative linkage  (see also chapter eight and thirteen)

Associative linkage here refers to sustained relations between and among actors.
Associative linkages include corporate conglomerations and associations, international trade associations, relationships and participation in international advocacy coalitions.

Representativeness (see chapter seven and nine especially)

An actor can claim to be representative when it can justify speaking for those not in the organization or group.


Example two: The Council of Canadians is an umbrella group comprised of unions and many other kinds of advocacy groups.  Each of its member organizations has a large membership.  When the Council of Canadians advances an argument in public debate, it says that it is representative of the opinions of several hundred thousand Canadian.  It bases its claim, much in the same way as all coalitions and umbrella groups do, on the fact that its member organizations each have large memberships.  It represents the aggregation of all of the members in all of its member organizations.

Overarching symbols of togetherness  (see chapter fourteen)

Many actors employ rhetorical devices, images and symbols as a way of signaling that a large group of people share the basic perspective or prescriptions being offered.

Formal mandate (see chapters seven, eight and nine)

Formal mandate refers to the goals and powers laid out in legislation or documents of incorporation.

Rational arguments (see chapter fourteen)

Rational argument is different from the good reasons discussed in the chapter thirteen on discourse.  Rational argument here refers to careful observations, the application of scientific knowledge and logical reasoning.

Conflict (see chapter nine)

Conflict refers here to the disagreements within and among various actors.
Examples might include conflicts between and among environmental groups or within a corporate association.

One voice (see chapter nine also)

Actors are often comprised of many groups with different viewpoints or interests or organizations. To the extent that the actor can articulate a single perspective or promoting a single course of action despite the differences of opinion among its participants, it speaks with one voice.

Resonance (see chapter nine and fourteen)

Resonance refers to the situation when actors with different goals or perspectives seem like they are recommending the same thing.  Each actor has its own reasons, but the reasons become unimportant inasmuch as it is perceived that the actors all agree on what should be done.

Example four At one point in time In Canada, critics of regulation included business associations, the consumer association and leftist commentators. Each had different reasons for advancing arguments that conventional regulation was unwieldy and often ineffective. That said, at the time of the public debate about the usefulness of conventional regulation, it was easily perceived that everyone had the same point to make.

Political ethos (see chapters four and fourteen)

Political ethos is used as a catch-all phrase that refers to the climate of opinion and the general orientation of those in positions of power (including government).

Copy-cat and harmonization (see chapters seven and thirteen)

Copy-cat refers here to the situation where decision makers refer to what is done in other jurisdictions as the rationale for their doing the same thing.  As well said earlier, harmonization refers to the process of making standards, regulations, policies or laws compatible between and among jurisdictions.(see chapter

Public opinion

Public opinion refers here only to the results of polling.  Polling is often said to reflect the perspectives of everyone. Even at best, it does so only at a very particular moment in time and with respect to the specific question (and wording of the question) that serves as the poll.


Background Discussion

The complexities of power and influence

Powerful actors are not always influential, as we will see in a case study below.

Oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries are super powerful. Their monetary and social advantages make them so. But if these were the only determinates of power we could predict outcomes by going down the laundry list of these advantages.

It is common to think of power in decision-making based on the size and resources of interest groups—as an interest group negotiation, more or less. Actors of different degrees of power and with differing interests are constantly bargaining with each other to affect outcomes.

Much decision-making does have the character of bargaining, and analysis of these “bargains” is important, but it rarely tells the whole story. Powerful interest groups, despite their weight, do not always get what they want. Environmentalists have defeated proposals for new oil and gas projects. Investments are made in solar power by corporate and government actors. So interests are an important but not a sole determinant of power. We need to attune ourselves to other determinants that may account for decisions about the public issue of concern to you.

Citizens have limited power as individuals. Citizens vote (politicians obviously depend on this) and they conduct polls, read media closely, and ask for working class opinions. But only the aggregate of voters can bring and election result.  But politicians have more independence from voter than meets the eye. Decisions about many issues are made within a framework of law and international relations, both rarely influenced by voters. Furthermore, the views of constituent interest groups—oil, gas, coal, nuclear and banking industries—often outweigh those of the voters.

Research on public issues demands a more complicated calculus of the determinants of actors’ power and influence than either interest group theory or voter preference.


Steps in research:

  1. Scan everything you have collected thus far. Chronology should be extensive by this point.
  2. Decide which are the most important determinants of actors’ power and influence for your research purposes. This should reflect the broader concerns you brought to the research, and your own perspective. For example, it could be political economy. If so, you will now focus on the corporate sector.
  3. Read the material in all your files with an eye specifically toward economic determinants of actors’ power and influence. Even if your focus is discourse, you want a sense of the economic heft of those involved. A sense of economic heft can be gathered in a number of ways: an actor’s access to resources, level of participation in conferences, international trade delegations, inquiries. All this is costly and time consuming. It can be surprising and counterintuitive as to the level of clout certain small companies have as opposed to big multinational ones. In assessing this, you need to consider the industrial sector involved. Corporate mobility varies greatly between industries and sectors. Lastly, looking directly at recommendations and decisions can help guide your sense of economic heft, as well as paying attention to debates in committees leading up to legislation. And keep in mind that economic heft does not always guarantee economic clout.
  4. Focus on organizational determinates of power and influence: look for all the associations, umbrella groups, coalitions and organizations to which an actor belongs, as well as associative linkages of members of the board of directors of corporations or advocate groups by drawing on their websites and CVs. Do not neglect social media!A word on formal mandates. Formal mandates also empower actors. Use strategies from chapter eleven to find the formal mandates. The law in many countries now demands that the industries affected by decisions be formally consulted.Organizational determinants sometimes undermine actors’ power and influence. One case study in this chapter is of an advocacy group that lost its claim to power and influence due to internal conflicts. Those who interact regularly with organizations or government know where and when these conflicts exists; often they are willing to expose these instances in interviews. Even the most organizationally cohesive group, one with strong relationships amongst members, may not be in a position to speak with one voice.Paying close attention to media coverage should also help you discern whether there are conflicting perspectives at play that would undermine the power and influence of the actors.
  1. Focus on the political determinates of power and influence: look for situations of resonance—situations where groups with different perspectives seem to be advocating the same thing.All actors take account of the prevailing philosophy and agenda ofThe government in power, and are almost always willing to talk about political ethos and its impact in an interview. These interviews, paired with a close reading of media give you a nuanced perspective.Decisions made in other jurisdictions are a political determinant also. Use the Internet to find policies adopted in other countries, and interviews to determine their influence.

    Public opinion is often an important political determinant, equated with voter preference and political ethos. It is reflected by elections, polling and by community or political campaigns. Polling data are available on the internet.

  1. Look at determinants of power and influence arising from the decision-making process. Actors present are likely to have more influence than those not present, regardless of formal mandates.


Case Studies

 The Five Canadian Banks

 Recall that the five major Canadian banks lobbied for government permission for mergers.  They advanced cogent arguments on their own behalf.  These arguments were matched by cogent arguments from other actors, those that did not support mergers.  So far the banks have not been successful.  Mergers among banks is a public issue, and right now there is a negative response in Canada.

These five major banks in Canada are large and well resourced, even in today’s recession.  They have heft in terms of size and resources.  However, the five major Canadian banks cannot close down their operations in one jurisdiction in order to set up somewhere else.  They are not like the mining industry, for example, where firms can simply shut down existing operations in Canada, put new developments on hold, and move their investments elsewhere.  The banks have relatively little economic clout, as economic clout is defined here, despite their size and importance.

It is debatable whether the five major Canadian banks should be seen as part of a larger network.  On one hand, they are Canadian banks, responsible only to the regulatory authorities in the jurisdictions where they operate, in this case Canada. But global financial networks are ever more important. Through credit and lending, investment instruments and the like, all banks are becoming integrated in a single financial system such that something that affects one affects all the others.  All now have branches or relationships with financial institutions outside Canada. The five major Canadian banks are no longer quite masters in their own house and none operates exclusively in one jurisdiction.

Merger policy is affected by how decision-makers choose to see the position of the five major Canadian banks, either as independent Canadian actors or as thoroughly subject to pressures from elsewhere. If these banks are seen to be independent Canadian actors, one might expect that mergers would not be permitted, decision-makers being concerned with concentration of their power in Canada.  If, on the other hand, these banks are seen to be part of a global banking system, an international network, then mergers might be seen as necessary to strengthen the hand of the Canadian banks in the global banking system. Merger policy is set by law and regulation, not industry self-regulation.  Law and regulation is in the hands of national governments.

There are other Canadian banks, smaller to be sure, plus very large insurance and trust companies, plus credit unions operating in Canada.  Some foreign-chartered banks have also set up in Canada.  The existence of other groupings within the banking sector in Canada creates countervailing pressures on government and multiple centres of power. There is more than one interest and perspective at play within the sector as a whole, in other words. Moreover, actors from other sectors likely to be affected by bank mergers also participated in the debate.  The five major Canadian banks are not the only voice heard on the question of bank mergers. In the case of mergers, as well, there were relatively few other groups who supported this particular policy, and thus little resonance for the idea.

However, the five major Canadian banks have had a strong hand, because they have regular, routine and continuing contact with policy makers, in part because they are regulated and have an important relationship with the central bank of Canada.

Bank mergers are not supported by public opinion.  The five major banks are, however, insiders to banking policy, considered to be expert and well informed. Thus far, the major banks in Canada have been able to ignore the differences among themselves in favour of a single agenda of pursuing mergers, although some of these banks are more eager for mergers than others.  This particular demand is straightforward, intelligible and pragmatic.

Under past governments in Canada, the five major banks’ desire to participate in mergers did not fit well with the political agenda of the government.  But all that may have recently changed with the election of a different government, and it remains to be seen how the current government will react to the idea of bank mergers, especially given the current state of the economy.  In other countries today, bank mergers are commonplace, even sought after.

So here is an actor, the five major Canadian banks acting together, with considerable power, that one might expect to have sufficient influence over policy, such that its interests were able to prevail on the question of mergers. But note the number of determinants of power that do not apply in the case of this issue and these banks.  These banks do not have economic clout. They cannot be seen as representative institutions, nor do they have the capacity to rouse public opinion in their favour. This particular issue does not resonate widely among other actors.  In this case also, there is a countervailing pressure on government, from bank-like institutions and others with different interests.  International institutions exert little pressure in this case.

By using the questions listed above, it becomes apparent why the banks might not have been successful in gaining the policy they want, despite their obvious power and the influence they normally exert. It is also possible to identify what is likely to change, and thus the prognosis for future decisions.

The answers to the questions do not indicate which of the many determinants of power outweighs the others in the bank merger case. This is a judgment call based on other reading done by the researcher.  It does not say what actually happened in deliberations. This would have been discovered through research conducted earlier. It does not say why official from the five major banks in Canada think they have failed so far on merger policy. This would become evident once interviews are done.  It does not say what the banks actually gained in the bargaining that accompanied decision- making on mergers, the benefits received when they failed to get permission for mergers.  This might have been evident from newspaper coverage, as other decisions would have been recorded.

But you are now in a position to go back to the files. The researcher would now look closely at the transcripts from the parliamentary committee hearings to see what questions were asked of the leaders of the five major banks, and who spoke in favour or opposition to the mergers.  Public opinion might be usefully gauged. From poll results, also announced in the press.  Close attention to news stories would yield interesting insights into the trade-offs that occurred when the banks were pressing their case, what they won instead of the permission for mergers.

The Fraser Institute

In Canada, there are many research centres and “think tanks” that function as advocacy groups as well.  Most are associated with a particular political perspective, even though few have formal connections to government or political parties. These centres range across the political spectrum.  Some are very well funded by contributions from their member groups, while others are not.  All depend to some extent upon consultancy and contracts to carry out their research studies. Often these consultancies and contracts are with government, but sometimes these think-tanks take on tasks themselves for their members, collectively or individually.  Each think-tank has an office, not necessarily in Ottawa, and an advisory board.

This case study is about the Fraser Institute. Its office is located on the west coast of Canada. It operates with a membership, mainly of large companies that contribute to the funding of the Institute and its various studies and reports.  The Fraser Institute is not aligned with a specific political party, but known to be very conservative in its outlook.  It does a great deal of its own research. It is considered to be very powerful and influential in deliberations and decision-making; its reports are often cited and their recommendations almost always consulted before decisions are made.

The Fraser Institute is comparatively well resourced, at least by Canadian standards.  It has money to hire experts to write reports, and funds to support research.  Its staff members have funds to attend conferences and otherwise participate actively.  Not withstanding the economic clout of its corporate members, however, and its own access to resources, the think-tank itself has no economic clout.

Throughout the world, and especially in the highly industrialized countries, there are many similar think-tanks.  Whether or not there are formal alliances among them, each group’s reports are studied carefully by the others, and each group’s leaders are invited to speak other’s conferences.  The networking is less a matter of organizational links or participation in common activities than it is a result of the flow of ideas from one group to the next and the spread of keywords rooted in the demands of all of them.  Decisions-makers do not presume that an action taken in response to any recommendation from this think tank will have an impact on other groups, however.

The Fraser Institute does not claim to be direct representative of the general public.  However, it can and does argue that it represents a broad spectrum of firms, a significant number of the major companies.  It has no formal mandate to be involved in decision-making, despite its influence.  And interestingly, despite the very different interests of its many members, it is remarkably cohesive.  It has had strong and charismatic leadership.  Through its reports and press releases, it presents a remarkable consistent point of view, again remarkable because of the different interests of its members.

At some times, and in some locations in Canada, the Fraser Institute’s views meshed closely with those of the government in power, and at least one of the political parties. That said, governments change, and political parties rise and fall in popular support.  The Fraser Institute is considered to be an insider at some moments in time, and an outsider at others.  Its attempts to influence public opinion are never without impact, but the Institute has had more or less capacity to mobilize public opinion and catch the ear of decision-makers, depending on the political ethos of the time.

In sum, possibly its main sources of power and influence arise from the Fraser Institute’s routine access to decision-makers, its capacity to articulate a single point of view and the fact that its message is always clear.  It helps that its recommendations are often written at a sufficient degree of generality that they can be applied in different circumstances.  For example, the Institute has been a strong campaigner for deregulation, a recommendation that is supported by erstwhile competitors in the cable industry, supported even in the face of the cable industry’s historical reliance upon regulation. The Fraser Institute’s members keep their differences of opinion to themselves when they are speaking in the context of their membership in the Fraser Institute.

The question can thus be asked about the Fraser Institute:  Why it is it as powerful and influential as it is.  The usual answer is that it is something akin to the intellectual wing of the corporate sector, and that its “neoliberal” views reflect what people in government really believe but are sometimes unwilling to admit.  Although there is some truth to this answer, it will hardly suffice. There are other think-tanks, with different views and excellent corporate connections, aspiring to the same status, and they are as active in producing reports and recommendations as the Fraser Institute.  Moreover, it is hard to claim that governments have one view, when even the different governments. Even departments of government, let alone the legislators, hardly always see things the same way.

The Fraser Institute’s high level of funding is also sometimes cited as a reason for its influence, and it too has less of an effect than one might imagine. It is not the only well funded think-tank. More interesting is how the resources of the Fraser Institute are used: to provide an intellectual foundation for arguments of sufficient generality as to reflect the views of many otherwise competitors as a single coherent point of view. The credibility of carefully constructed scientific studies, and its carefully constructed public facade of neutrality underwrite its point of view.

Fascinating questions follow:  How does the Fraser Institute manage to keep the competing interests of its members in check in order to articulate a single point of view?  How does it manage to maintain its stance of neutrality even while being recognized as representing a conservative point of view?  How does it determine how and where to exercise its influence, given that it rarely appears in deliberation forums?   To what extent is the Fraser Institute networked, other than through its relations with its members?”

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