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About the project

Regulating Civil Society: NGO and Party Law and their Consequences is an interdisciplinary research programme linking together several projects exploring the following questions from different disciplinary perspectives: Which regulatory frameworks are in place in long-lived democracies to steer the behaviour of membership-based, voluntary organizations constitutive for civil society and the third sector (e.g. political parties, interest groups, service-providing civil society organizations) and why? How do differences in regulatory frameworks affect the working, strategic choices and the long-term evolution of these organizations respectively?

Building on the study of voluntary organizations in political science, sociology, social psychology, comparative law and public administration research, Regulating Civil Society addresses this theme through two components, one that takes a state-centred perspective and one that takes an organization-centred perspective: it studies the scope and nature of NGO and party law adopted in a range of advanced Civil Law and Common Law democracies and their consequences on the organizations – political parties, interest groups, welfare- or service-providing organizations - they apply to – e.g. their structures, their strategies or long-term survival. The project mainly but not exclusively focuses on 19 long-lived European and overseas democracies (the old EU-15 (excluding the new Southern democracies Spain, Portugal and Greece) plus Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Canada, United States, Australia and New Zealand). Importantly, all countries studied have a consolidated legal system in which regulation, once adopted, is (usually) implemented. The project looks at settings in which regulation can be expected to affect the activities or behaviour of voluntary organizations.

Regarding the state-centred component more specifically, NGO law and party law (or regulation) capture mainly formal legislation (statutory law) but, mostly in Common Law democracies, also include central judicial rulings or, as common in some areas of regulation, administrative proceedings. Self-regulation such as (national or international) codes of good practice (or ‘soft law’) that organizations do not have to comply with but adopt voluntarily is not considered. Furthermore, the research focuses on national NGO law and party law. Only when relevant areas are exclusively regulated on the regional level (e.g. the legal recognition of associations as in the United States or Australia) reference to subnational laws is made. Relevant areas of regulation are defined as those that directly affects the formation (basic freedoms and legal recognition), operation (core activities and funding) and dissolution (withdrawal of legal personality and ban) of those types of voluntary organizations that engage in the political process at different stages of the policy-making process, e.g. political parties, interest groups, citizen associations, advocacy organizations, lobby groups. While all voluntary organizations are by definition ‘non-governmental’, the term NGO is used as a shorthand for those voluntary organizations that are not political parties, encompassing advocacy-oriented, service-oriented or hybrid organizations alike. The direct applicability of legal regulation to NGOs or political parties does not presuppose that provisions refer to specific organizations. It presupposes that one or several of these organizations can take the legal form legal regulation specifies (e.g. association law often applies to political parties, i.e. parties can gain recognition as associations according to the law; charity law does not presuppose that charities must have individual members but membership-based associations can usually take the legal form of charity if they meet the eligibility criteria; in contrast, foundations do usually not have individual members, which is why foundation law is not considered). Taking this perspective, NGO law and party law can cover – depending on the legal system analysed - constitutions, party finance law, association law, non-profit law (or not-for-profit law), charity law, tax laws, criminal law, anti-terrorism legislation, administration law, anti-discrimination legislation, parliamentary proceedings etc. (see for the primary material organized by country the two ‘Legal Text sites’ for party law and NGO law respectively).

As part of this broader study of organizational regulation across advanced democracies, we explore in greater depth the legal mechanisms available to democratic states to counter the threat of extremist political organizations. Comparing regulation in six established common law democracies (UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland) and focusing on rights-restrictive mechanisms such as limitations on basic freedoms and bans, we analyse if, and how, this repertoire of measures has changed since 9/11 – an event widely regarded as having blurred the distinction between internal and external security threats.

Moving to the organization-centred component, Regulating Civil Society: NGO and Party Law and their Consequences looks at how the characteristics, behaviour or evolution of political parties, interest groups or welfare-providing organizations differ depending on the nature of regulation adopted in a country or whether and how organizations change over time in response to changes in their regulatory environment (e.g. provisions of or restrictions on direct or indirect state funding). This allows us to examine, for instance, to what extent legal pressures generally ‘streamline’ different forms of voluntary organizations, e.g. whether we find similar patterns of institutionalization across political parties, interest groups and service-providing NGOs. By studying organizational characteristics and their evolution comparatively, we can further assess in which regulatory contexts intra-organizational tensions that existing research highlights (e.g. between organizational professionalization and active member participation; between an organization’s dependency on state funding and its engagement in political advocacy; between intensive participation and organizational functioning) can be more or less easily navigated. While this component consists of qualitative assessments of the life cycles of different organizational types in the form of in-depth case studies, a major effort is made to collect quantitative data suitable for large-N analyses through population surveys in six European countries, details on which can be found on our 'Surveys' page.

Regulating Civil Society as a research programme links several projects that are generously supported by the European Research Council (State Encroachment of Civil Society?, STATORG, n° 335890, directed by Nicole Bolleyer) and a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant (Democratic Self-Defence Before and After 9/11: Anti-Extremist Measures in Established Common Law Democracies, jointly held by Nicole Bolleyer and Anika Gauja).

Regulating Civil Society is based in the interdisciplinary University Centre for Elections, Media and Participation (CEMaP) which hosts a variety of research projects on related themes.

For further information please contact us at ngopartylaw@exeter.ac.uk.