Accepted Paper:

Beyond accountability: the role of flexing groups in derailing democracy  
Janine Wedel (George Mason University)

Paper short abstract:

The evolution of a new kind of grouping, the social-networking phenomenon of 'flex groups', signals significant changes taking place in governing and policy-making. These players, who implicitly reject the concept of 'conflict of interest', can have negative implications for democracy and accountability.

Paper long abstract:

The evolution of a new kind of grouping—a social-networking phenomenon I call "flexing groups"—signals significant changes taking place in governing and policymaking. Flexing groups draw for membership on a limited circle of players who interact with each other in multiple roles, both inside and outside government. They resurface in different incarnations and configurations to achieve their goals over time, be they ideological, political, or financial. Flexing groups are at the top of the food chain in influence wielding. Their members specialize in relaxing the government's rules of accountability and businesses' codes of competition, thereby undermining both democracy and capitalism. These chameleon-like players are hard to hold accountable because they are adept at shifting between state and private roles and conflating the interests of both.

One might expect flexing groups to arise at the hub of activity in unraveling centrally planned states, particularly where national resources are being divested en masse. In transitional eastern Europe, informal long-standing groups that were schooled in circumventing the communist state morphed into flexing groups. Working in and around crumbling systems, they acquired companies and other resources at fire-sale prices. The most skilled players bridged state and private, legal and illegal territory, using ambiguity to their advantage.

The appearance of flexing groups in the United States was less predictable. Although the impact of such cliques in former communist states is much more intense than it is in stable societies such as the United States, still, outsourcing and the restructuring of governing has opened up the field to these groups. The most prominent identifiable sovereign clique—a longstanding core of a dozen or so "neoconservatives," whose strategizing and lobbying helped thrust the United States into war in Iraq—highlights the potential influence of such groups. Increased contracting out of state functions has provided increased opportunities for small, interconnected, and strategically placed groups of public-private actors to take over public policy agendas in pursuit of their own interests.

The rules of the influence game are in rewrite. As the architecture of governing changes in states as varied as the United States and former Soviet countries, flexing groups are making inroads into uncharted terrain. They both break rules and help make new rules to their advantage. The new rules, which take us beyond "influence peddling," the "revolving door," "conflict of interest," and other garden-variety forms of corruption, are reshaping governing and democracy. And, because public discussion and scholarship are still dominated by old ways of thinking on which the old rules rest, flexing groups and their modus operandi are far from being identified, let alone curbed.

Panel W009
Policy worlds