Contrary to common belief, politicians are not in the pocket of highly-paid environmental, corporate or union lobbyists. They certainly do what lobbyists want, as long as it isn't getting too much attention, but government gets a lot more responsive when publicity is attached.

Ebola is a case in point. The National Institutes of Health got over $350 billion in government money this century and didn't bother to fund Ebola treatments, but once it became a high-profile media event, they went to Congress and claimed they just needed more money and Congress gave them another $90 million. Without media alarm, nothing would have happened and government-controlled science would instead continue to overrepresent high-profile concerns like HIV and waste $10 million, enough to have done a clinical trial for Ebola a decade ago, on things like video games about obesity that no one has ever played.

Publicity works. If you are being ignored by politicians you just need to attain some critical mass and you won't need lobbyists at all. 

University of Leicester political scientist Professor Laura Morales says democratic governments are more likely to yield to public pressures against their policies when both surveys and protests send unequivocal signals that unresponsive behavior will risk alienating voters on election day. At a talk on February 17th, she will be discussing results from the ResponsiveGov project by using two contrasting examples of governmental responsiveness: nuclear energy policy after the Fukushima disaster and the policy making process aimed at regulating Internet piracy in Western democracies. The talk will be held from 5:30pm to 6.30pm in Ken Edwards’ Lecture Theatre 1 and is free and open to the public. 

Morales says, “The public’s perception of government responsiveness – how readily the government acts upon the preferences and demands of their citizens between elections – sometimes sway the decisions of a large proportion of voters. It is this anticipation of electoral penalties that governments and parties take into account when deciding whether to yield to or resist opposition to their policies.”

Why aren't governments pro-actively responsive to public pressure? “Voters hold governments to account through elections by rewarding or punishing them for their perceived performance. However, perceptions of performance are not only determined by perceptions of responsiveness to citizens' preferences and demands, even if they are an important element of how voters will judge a given government's performance. The factors involved in voter decision-making are far more complex than opinion polls sometimes suggest. Governments and parties know this and assess the risks in ignoring the wishes of the public.

“In this context, governments that systematically neglect being responsive to citizens' wishes on policy areas or issues that a large portion of the voters care about are likely to be penalized on election day for it.”

Commenting on how her research connects with current political developments, she said: “Partly, this is one of the reasons for UKIP's rising trajectory in recent years. A considerable portion of the electorate feels that the current and past governments have ignored their preferences for less immigration and have not been responsive to what the public wants in relation to immigration policy.

“Although there is evidence to suggest that UK governments have actually been among the most responsive to the public on immigration policy, what is critical is the perception that citizens have of the degree of responsiveness to their preferences when making a voting choice.”

Morales’s research also highlights the limitations of previous research, which has been too narrowly focused on data drawn from opinion surveys. “Existing studies tend to focus their attention – narrowly – on the opinions of the public that are expressed through opinion surveys, neglecting other forms of simultaneous public pressure. The two case studies that I will discuss illustrate the different dynamics that are at play when democratic governments face multiple – and often opposing – demands from various sectors of the public.”