All too often, lobbyists get a bad rap. When we hear them mentioned in the media, it’s usually in reference to some sordid story which undermines their trustworthiness in the public eye. Stories that have hit the front page in recent weeks include reports that Philip Morris pressured the European Parliament ahead of a vote to ban some types of cigarettes, or that Angel Merkel’s conservative party accepted donations from BMW only days before a European vote to cap car emissions. Is this all there is to tell?
According to Professor Viviane de Beaufort, co-director of the European Center of Law and Economics (a Think Tank recognized by the European Union), not only is the role of the lobbyist largely misunderstood, it’s also evolving fast and playing a bigger role than ever in the public sphere.
A new role on a digital landscape
Indeed, as the online universe facilitates sociability, discussion and conversation, the arenas for public and private debate have converged. Today, Blogs, Facebook and Twitter help shape public opinion while helping interest groups gain power in numbers. This new environment is bringing about real change in the worlds or lobbying and policy-making.
“Traditionally, lobbying has been centered on direct decision makers and elected officials, be it on the European, national or local level. However, this traditional model ignores the sway that civil society can have over policy-making,” she explains. “In fact, these traditional representations do not fully correspond to the aspirations of a democracy in which citizens aspire to express themselves, to get involved and to intervene. The current row over European online privacy is a striking example of this new reality.”
Indeed, up until a few weeks ago, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding had been running into a brick wall trying to push a new private-data protection law. But once the Edward Snowden affair came along, it had a huge impact on public opinion. And in this case, public opinion has helped give lobbyists a boost, and push policy forward all the while keeping the common good in mind. Today, Deutsche Telekom, Germany’s biggest phone company is lobbying the government to enforce tougher privacy protection. Viviane Reding’s proposed law is gaining both French and German support, owing some thanks to the public outcry created by the NSA scandal.
“The need for transparency in our modern democracies is helping to shed light on the process of government and policy-making,” continues professor de Beaufort. “As the Arab spring illustrated in 2011, the Internet and social media have given rise to a kind of digital democracy and the contents of laws are increasingly influenced by public opinion and submitted to the judgments of many. The role of the lobbyist is also changing as practitioners learn to leverage and connect with public sentiment.”
Towards a new identity and recognition
Professor de Beaufort argues that scandals arise – and the image of the lobbyist is tarnished – for want of transparency and regulation. First, making the work of lobbyists more transparent and more effective means recognizing the importance of the role that they play within society. The same is true within businesses: all too often, lobbyists are called into action in moments of crisis, and frequently at too late a stage to do much good. These internal limitations that block their efficient use need to evolve.
“Tomorrow’s system should be one where lobbyists can effectively play their role, share information with decision-makers and opinion leaders, while avoiding conflict of interest and compromise,” she explains. “In fact, I think lobbyists should more accurately be described as corporate diplomats, because lobbying is designed as a tool for democracy and as a means to involve civil society and economic decision-making in the policy-making process.”
“I openly denounce all subversions of the system and strongly believe in the virtues and importance of that corporate diplomacy. Do we need to give added strength to existing devices based on system used in Quebec, for example? We need to ask ourselves some tough questions regarding the tightening of existing E.U. frameworks.”
She concludes that in Europe, safeguarding will involve more transparency of process, wider circulation of information and especially a system of checks and balances within the Commission itself, and between the European Parliament and the Member States meeting within the Council. Indeed, when people's expectations are always more urgent and explicit about transparent decision-making, both lobbyists and public officials have it in their best interests to subscribe to all reforms regarding greater transparency.