Lobbying; Problems and Challenges

On February 10, Transparency International UK launched its new report, ‘Lifting the Lid on Lobbying’.  As lead researcher, The University of Sussex’s Liz David-Barrett sets out the main findings below.

Lobbying is a critical part of the policy-making process in a liberal democracy.  If we imagine a world without lobbying, that would require politicians and civil servants to be experts in a vast range of areas.  But it would also require them to be prophets, able to foresee all of the future consequences of their policies for the many different stakeholder groups in society.

The fact that interest groups influence policy, then, is not a problem, but it does raise difficult questions about how to ensure that everyone who needs a voice has one and that the level of access and influence available to different groups is fair.  Moreover, lobbying is not just about the making of laws and policies.  Groups lobby to win contracts, to influence appointments to public bodies, and to shape the way that funds are allocated.  What is at stake is how public money is spent and whether it serves the public interest.

Ultimately, these questions place an enormous burden on politicians and policy-makers to ensure that they make decisions on the basis of sound evidence and can make thoughtful judgements among competing claims.  This also requires the public to place great trust in policy-makers.

That trust is severely challenged at the moment.  TI’s last Global Corruption Barometer found that 59% of UK respondents believed that the UK government is ‘entirely’ or ‘to a large extent’ run by a few big entitites acting in their own best interests.  In common usage, the term ‘lobbying’ is shorthand for something exclusive, dirty and unfair, something corrupt.

These concerns were shared by David Cameron, when he was opposition leader.  In 2010, he described lobbying as the next big scandal waiting to happen and promised to regulate it more effectively.  Yet our research revealed 14 new scandals related to lobbying and the revolving door that have emerged since his speech.  And that is just the scandals that came to light.

Why is this?  What’s going wrong with lobbying in the UK?

First, transparency is severely lacking.  We found that the vast majority of lobbying in the UK occurs behind closed doors.  Disclosure of lobbying meetings is only required for official ministerial meetings and those with Permanent Secretaries. Yet a great deal of policy-making and lobbying takes place elsewhere, as our interviews with both policy-makers and lobbyists confirmed.

Lobbying of parliamentarians, lobbying of all but the most senior civil servants, lobbying of local government officials and elected members, and lobbying of a vast number of public agencies can take place without records of the meetings being disclosed. Indeed, even lobbying targeted at Ministers need not be disclosed if it occurs outside Departmental meetings.

Another problem here concerns the role of ‘big money’ – that is, large donations by individuals – in financing political parties.   It seems that money might be buying influence, whether in the form of access to policy-makers, honours, or peerages.

A second set of issues relates to the integrity of policy makers.  Recent scandals have revealed politicians and crown servants who were willing to abuse their powers to benefit a private interest group, did so in exchange for payment, and failed to declare such payments.  Other scandals relate to the revolving door, whereby individuals trade on knowledge or contacts gained in public employment when they leave public office (or in anticipation of leaving public office).

These cases suggest that some individuals see public office as an asset which can be traded.  Their behavior showed disregard for the rules which were supposed to shape their conduct, as well as a shocking lack of respect for the spirit of those rules.  We also found that the rules regulating the conduct of politicians and public officials vary considerably in the different national and devolved institutions of the United Kingdom.  This seems a recipe for confusion, and poor accountability.

The third issue is access.  Lobbying looks corrupt when it grants or facilitates preferential access to some groups or individuals, or serves only narrow interests rather than the broader public interest.  It is inevitable that some organisations and individuals are better equipped to engage in public policy and lobbying than others, but policy makers should account for this. While it is impossible to ensure that all groups have equal access, our research suggests that, in the UK, money can buy access.  This prompts suspicions that access is unfair and that decisions are taken to serve the interests of those with greater resources.

Policy-making is becoming more technical and complex. One consequence is that politicians and civil servants increasingly look to external experts for advice, including advisory groups, academic institutions and think tanks.  The current UK government has also created ‘management boards’ responsible for overseeing the strategic direction of individual departments.

While these new governance mechanisms may be necessary, it is not clear that the rules and regulation have caught up.  The process of selecting members of advisory groups lacks transparency, raising risks that external advisors might promote their own agendas.

Secondments into government from private-sector companies also raise questions.  When management consultancies provide staff off the public payroll to work on technical details of policy or implementation in government departments, there is a risk they might shape policy to suit themselves or their clients.

The Lobbying Act ostensibly sought to address these issues, but it is grossly inadequate.  First, it defines lobbyists and the lobbied too narrowly, so that only a tiny proportion of those involved in lobbying are covered by its rules.  Second, the requirements for disclosure on those lobbyists that are included are minimal, far weaker than similar disclosure requirements in the United States for example.  Finally, the sanctions for those who are found to have breached the Act are insignificant, a paltry amount compared to the sums spent on lobbying.

Our new report sets out 15 recommendations to reform lobbying in the UK.  Let us hope that the incoming government will be ready to take up the challenge.