For many years there has been a frenetic debate in the Netherlands about lobbying legislation. In particular, the introduction of a lobby register is receiving a lot of attention in that discussion. Such as in the FD article of 20 January, “Lobby register? The Netherlands is not in a hurry for it yet”. In this article, the scientist says “wait and see”, the lobbyist calls it “embarrassing” that there is still no register, and a lobbying politician talks about “100% symbol politics”.
It strikes me that the article does point very strongly at the minister of the Interior and at lobbyists. Whereas the role and responsibility of the House of Representatives remains unaddressed. Meanwhile, the House has so far imposed few lobbying rules on itself other than abolishing continuous access passes for former MPs. For instance, the House of Representatives lacks a public visitors’ register, rules on revolving doors, or insight into individual agendas regarding who or what is being discussed with. And the motive for applying for a lobby pass provided in the FD-article stems more from practical considerations: just as at Schiphol Airport a Privium pass allows you to walk through faster, a lobby pass facilitates access to a number of places in the House of Representatives building. While a MP does not consider the pass a prerequisite for contact, for instance.
Suppose such rules did apply in the House of Representatives I still wonder: and then what? Isn’t the honest story that complete transparency is impossible? Because even if we were to webcast conversations between MPs and ‘externals’, so to speak, it would not be sufficiently transparent for those who do not trust politicians or the decision-making system anyway. All those rules then become just an end in themselves without enhancing the quality and legitimacy of decision-making. For me, this discussion on lobbying legislation is consequently reducible to a discussion on trust. If you look at the Statistics Netherlands trust figures, you see a declining trust of citizens in the House of Representatives, politicians and civil servants. The latest figures date from March 2022 and the trend is likely to have continued. Lobbying rules are only a very small part of reversing this trend. The problem is deeper and more fundamental.
When you take a position on a lobby register as a lobbyist, you should not forget to mention that you yourself are in favour of it. Herewith: also as a lobbying consultant, active for almost 30 years in The Hague, Brussels and Washington, I too think a register is an excellent idea. So now introduce that register as soon as possible. Every little bit helps. The House of Representatives can simply take the membership list of the Dutch Professional Association for Public Affairs, the BVPA, as a starting point for this, as this will already cover a majority of the PA professional group. But don’t try to settle everything down to the last detail. In the FD article of 20 January, the scientist argues that we should first look at what “is effective” before introducing a register. Now, above all, let’s not do that and just get started. And have a critical annual exchange of views and discuss what works and what does not. And subsequently experience, work-wise, what ‘The Hague’ and trust in the system and the professionals operating in it brings.
In doing so, also say honestly and transparently: not everything can be laid down in rules. Give each other a little more trust. Also have confidence in the institutions in which many checks and balances are already in place. If you do not abide by the rules or mores, you will be called to account. First of all in ‘The Hague’. And then publicly in (social) media. Against these existing checks & balances, no lobby register can compete.