As attention to lobbying activities of firms, NGOs and citizens increases, there is more and more talk about “ethical”, “responsible” or “good” lobbying. After each lobbying scandal, this debate intensifies, as the revelation of unethical activities by lobbyists are often followed by calls for a better regulation of the role of external stakeholders in public governance. In the context of the EU, a recent example is the controversy around the re-authorization of the pesticide glyphosate and the lobbying activities of Monsanto. Likewise, concerns about an unequal playing field and a lack of transparency shape current discussions on the upgrade of the EU Transparency Register and revolving-door dynamics between policymakers and corporations.
The discussion about regulating lobbying often follows a similar pattern: after details of yet another lobbying scandal are uncovered by journalists, all parties involved (politicians as well as lobbyists) acknowledge that these practices do not meet the standards of good governance and integrity, and underline the importance of transparency and responsible lobbying. But does a “good” lobbyist actually exist?
Last semester, I taught a Bachelor course on Public Affairs at Leiden University, and put forward this question to my students. A majority of them believed that a “good” lobbyist does actually exist. A substantial amount of them did have strong reservations, however. According to 39 % of the students, it is not so simple to reconcile lobbying and integrity. These results are remarkable, as our students also consider lobbying an essential component of democracy (a statement with which 3 out of 4 students agreed).
How can we explain this? There are a couple of reasons why lobbying and integrity are often not considered synonyms and I would like to highlight two of them here. First, as one our students rightly stated, lobbyists always speak for a “particular societal interest” (hence the use of the term “vested interests”). They usually represent a specific and delineated set of people (who have a similar profession, like doctors, or who care deeply about certain issues, like nature conservation), or a specific industry (like agriculture or energy). As a result, lobbyists will define or “frame” a political issue in a certain way. They will act strategically in order to shape political decisions in a way that benefits their constituency, and highlight particular aspects of a specific policy issue. Second, a key function of lobbyists is “representation”. This is especially the case if they work for an interest group that has members (which can be individuals but also organizations, like other interest groups, companies or public institutions). Their main task is to act as a transmission belt between the preferences of members and the intentions of policymakers. Their function is not to clarify and consider all different aspects of an issue, but to make sure that political decisions serve the interests of the societal group that they represents. The members of the group will hold them to account, and will be very critical when policy positions are not aligned with their views; or when their concerns are not reflected in policy outcomes.
Yet, there are also other important incentives at play, which might stimulate “good” lobbying practices. For instance, a recent study examined what members of Parliament in the Netherlands precisely look for when engaging with external stakeholders, and confirmed results from earlier research in other countries. It demonstrated that, first and foremost, policymakers look for reliable partners with a good reputation, who are able to provide accurate and up-to-date policy expertise. In other words, being trustworthy is considered crucial. As stated by a former Member of parliament “Over the years you get to know various sources (of information), and certain people affiliated to those resources, which shapes the value you attach to the provided information”. Secondly, it is important to underline that policy outcomes are never black or white, even though we all like to identify “winners” and “losers”. As in any negotiation with multiple actors, the ultimate objective is to find a compromise that somewhat meets the concerns of all involved parties. To achieve this, it is absolutely crucial to understand all the societal and political interest that are at play. If we consider lobbyists as “partners in policymaking”, who assist policymakers by providing policy-relevant expertise, it is essential that they have a good understanding of the political constellation and power relations, and are well aware of the interests of other societal stakeholders. This leads to the paradox that lobbyist regularly make compromises that deviate from the initial mandate of their members, but that represent the best possible outcome in the given political context. While this might be a logical consequence of a policy process that involves multiple actors and organizations inside and outside the government, it is not always so easy to explain this to the board of directors or at the annual membership meeting of an interest group.
Which of these different forces will be most powerful? That question is hard to answer. One might also wonder whether it is the right question. “Good” or responsible lobbying is not something that you can do on your own. It takes two to tango. Even if a lobbyist is completely transparent about the selective interests that he or she represents, and takes into account the concerns of other key stakeholders, policymakers also have a crucial responsibility. That is, elected politicians and public officials have to ensure that all relevant societal stakeholders in a particular issue indeed have the chance of being heard, and subsequently need to assess all these different viewpoints, with public policy outcomes that are both effective and legitimate in the back of their mind. In this challenging process, it is of course very helpful if the party at the other side of the table acts in transparent and responsible way.