Lobbying: an opaque activity of dubious integrity?

Lobbyists vol 3On receiving my copy of Lobbyists, Governments and Public Trust, Volume 3, I rushed straight to Chapter 15, History of Slovenian lobbying regulations at a glance (and who wouldn’t?). Given that an OECD glance can be nearly 600 pages long, making you wonder how many forests would die to print an in-depth look, I was deeply disappointed to see that the Slovenian regulators only got a few paragraphs. It’s not that they don’t care. Former foreign minister Zoran Thaler had to resign from the European Parliament and got a prison sentence after admitting he’d accepted an offer from Sunday Times reporters of cash in exchange for proposing amendments that would damage consumer protection.

Slovenia seems to be an exception. An OECD survey in 2013 on lobbying misconduct concluded that “governments either have no sanctions in place or don’t apply them”. A look at the timeline for when lobbying regulation was introduced in various countries allows you to see at a (real) glance how things have evolved. The US was a pioneer, introducing rules in 1946. Then came Germany five years later, quickly followed by, well, practically nobody for the next forty years. As the new report points out, more countries have introduced regulation in the past five years than in the previous sixty.

In his foreword to Lobbyists, Governments and Public Trust, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria says that “lobbying is often perceived as an opaque activity of dubious integrity”. (People can be so cruel.) In general, regulation has only been brought in because of a public outcry. This is bothering a growing number of lawmakers, like US Senator Michael Bennet, who told Politico magazine that: “Something needs to change, and it shouldn’t take another scandal. The incredibly frustrating dysfunction should be motivation enough for us to make significant changes.”.

The aims and many of the tactics of lobbying haven’t changed much since lobbyists used to wait for the Senators of Ancient Rome in the lobby, but the integrity framework does need to be updated, to close revolving doors for instance. This is the name given to the practice of politicians and others leaving public service then going to work for the very people they were overseeing, or the hiring of lobbyists for government posts. The people shoving the revolving doors can be quite brazen about it. One of them boasts on the website of his employers about his experience working as a legal adviser to the European Commission and how he regularly collaborates now with colleagues in their Brussels office. Advisory groups are another worry: “Although members of advisory groups have direct access to decision makers and are therefore able to lobby from the inside, such groups are not generally required to ensure a balanced representation of interests in their make-up.”

The OECD has defined 10 Principles for Transparency and Integrity in Lobbying. Number 4 may come as a surprise: “Countries should clearly define the terms ‘lobbying’ and ‘lobbyist’ when they consider or develop rules and guidelines on lobbying.” The lack of clarity around the question is made worse by a lack of education. A 2013 survey by Burson-Marsteller found that 15% of politicians and senior officials from 20 EU countries did not know if lobbying was regulated or not and only 20% of OECD member countries with lobbying rules and guidelines in place surveyed for the OECD report organised workshops for lobbyists and 30% online training courses for public officials in the legislative branch.

Things are changing, partly you might say through self-interest. Opinion polls across the world show that public trust in government is declining and politicians are regularly down there among the car salesmen and real estate agents in lists like this Australian one of the least trusted professions. (Could any of our readers tell us why Aussies also have so little faith in ministers of religion? Is it the word “minister”?)

These same polls suggest that people tend to trust businesses, and that it’s when the two professions get together that things start to go wrong. Even though both sides of the opaque activity are to blame, the report argues that “the main responsibility for safeguarding the public interest and rejecting undue influence lies with those who are lobbied, and therefore a sound public-sector integrity framework is essential.”

If I understand it correctly, we have to stop politics corrupting money.

Useful links

Lobbyists, Governments and Public Trust, Volume 2

Lobbyists, Governments and Public Trust, Volume 1

Government at a Glance 2013

OECD work on trust in government


Patrick Love

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