The serpent in the lobby
The most powerful man in the world is a gun-toting gay immigrant tobacconist married to a feminist oil executive receiving welfare benefits. He makes, modifies and abrogates laws with an ease that most politicians would envy, apart of course from the ones he pays to do his dirty business for him.
At least that’s the impression you could get from reading the press and seeing how often, and in what way, the word “lobby” is used. Generally, it’s in relation to undue influence on government decision-making, and the lobby or lobbyist is presented as inherently suspicious. Here’s a typical example from the UK’s Daily Mail: “The Frankenfood Conspiracy: Secret summit where slick lobbyists for bio-tech giants seduced Tory Ministers into changing their tune on GM food”. Even when the tone is more measured, lobbying is still implicitly pejorative. Here’s another UK paper, the Daily Telegraph: “The BBC is biased toward the pro-immigration lobby while ignoring those with opposing views, a study has claimed”. One side of the debate is a pro-immigration lobby. The other is not an anti-immigration lobby, but a much more human, reasonable and objective-sounding group of people with views.
There’s nothing new about this negative perception of lobbying. A 19th century edition of the Oxford English Dictionary gave this wonderfully ambiguous quote to illustrate the meaning: “What is known as lobbying by no means implies in all cases the use of money to affect legislation.” Lobbying has been a feature of US political life almost from the start, and in the 1860s, one paper wrote: “…winding in and out through the long, devious basement passage, crawling through the corridors, trailing its slimy length from gallery to committee room, at last it lies stretched at full length on the floor of Congress – this dazzling reptile, this huge, scaly serpent of the lobby.”
Whatever the semiotics, it’s obvious that lobbying has a poor reputation, made worse by the regular scandals associated with the practice, and by evidence that if you spend enough money, you can get policy made in your interest rather than for the public good. An IMF working paper established a link between extensive lobbying by firms in the financial, real estate and insurance sectors and high-risk lending practices. The IMF concluded that “prevention of future crises might require weakening political influence of the financial industry and closer monitoring of lobbying activities to understand the incentives better”.
Lobbyists themselves are aware of their poor image and many would like to see changes, according to an OECD survey of lobbying professionals published in Lobbyists, Governments and Public Trust, Volume 2: Promoting Integrity through Self-regulation. (Volume 1 reviews country experiences with government regulations designed to increase scrutiny). The type of information lobbyists believe should be disclosed includes the name of client and employer, issues lobbied and contributions. The majority of lobbyists surveyed supported mandatory disclosure of information. On the other hand, only around 5% of lobbyists thought that “overall lobbyist expenditure” should be disclosed.
Based on comparative reviews, country case studies and an analytical framework endorsed by governments, the OECD developed 10 Principles to guide decision makers regarding transparency and accountability in lobbying and to “support a level playing field in developing public policies”. On reading these I was reminded of a meeting at the OECD Forum last month where a speaker whose job was to campaign for health care reform mentioned that she was an “advocate” and not a “lobbyist”. It’s not surprising then that people involved in lobbying often prefer to describe themselves in some other way, so among other things, the Principles state that “Countries should clearly define the terms ‘lobbying’ and ‘lobbyist’ when they consider or develop rules and guidelines on lobbying”.
The meeting of the OECD Council at Ministerial Level that followed the Forum requested a “forward-looking Agenda on Trust to support an open, balanced and informed public decision-making process”. The first steps are already being taken. Today and tomorrow, the OECD’s Forum on Transparency and Integrity in Lobbying is bringing together high level government officials and representatives from the private sector and civil society to discuss lessons learned from their experiences in designing and implementing rules and guidelines on lobbying.
Lobbyists can provide valuable data and insights. But the rest of us have the right to know who they’re getting their data and insights from and who is paying them to present information and opinion to government officials and other public employees.
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