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


The serpent in the lobby

Click to learn more about the Forum
Click to learn more about the Forum

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.

Useful links

OECD work on fighting corruption in the public sector