After a long time, the discussion on lobbying regulations is back on the agenda. The reason for this is the publication and presentation of the OECD report Lobbying in the 21st century (20 May), which was also covered by de Volkskrant in the Netherlands (21 May). That is good news. Unfortunately, the discussion is once again conducted along the lines of ingrained stereotypes.
One such stereotype is embedded in the way the alleged influence of lobbyists is viewed. Angel Gurria, Secretary-General of the OECD, did the same by stating that this influence is “still underestimated”. Without further substantiating very concretely why this is the case. Another stereotype is that only companies and consultants do the lobbying. While NGOs also lobby intensively and professionally. And the number of government lobbyists has increased enormously in recent years.
This discussion should not be based on these stereotypes, but rather on the way in which lobbyists aim to improve policymaking in an appropriate and transparent way. This should also include how the recipients of lobbying – including politicians and civil servants – deal with this themselves and have their own responsibility. As well as how the media report on this. Unfortunately, the discussion about the regulation of lobbying is not sufficiently focused on this.
This is also reflected in the OECD report mentioned above. It compares lobbying laws and regulations in 41 countries. The result is a report full of ‘apples and oranges’. These incomparable quantities stem from the lack of an unambiguous description or definition of what lobbying is. And if you don’t know what you are investigating, you get impure comparisons. Take for example the “lobby register” in the Dutch parliament. If you look closely at the criteria of registration, the way you get in the ‘register’ and the list itself, it becomes clear that this is not a register. It is more like a “database of external Chamber pass holders”. Totally incomparable with a register in Brussels or Washington DC.
Nevertheless, the report also offers useful suggestions that we in the Netherlands should keep in mind. For example, in the area of rules for revolving door politicians. In the Netherlands, a rule (now expired) was once promulgated in which a cooling-off period was stipulated. But there is no sanction for violation. And there are no rules at all for MPs. Not if they become lobbyists themselves or if they have rules for the access privilege that they have as former members. Let alone that we have an organisation in the Netherlands that supervises all this.
Typical in this context is the response in the OECD report to the question of whether tightening lobbying regulations affects the transparency and integrity of public administration. It is precisely the lobbyists who see an improvement with stricter regulations, while about 50% of the politicians surveyed do not.
In short: it is time that we in the Netherlands have a discussion and come up with rules, self-regulation or legislation. These should certainly apply to lobbyists working for companies, governments, NGOs, as consultants and other organisations. Unambiguous rules should also be introduced for (former) politicians, civil servants and journalists. And with that, I hope that this topic will stay on the agenda a bit longer and we can have a fundamental discussion about it. For example, by talking about the value of lobbying for the quality of policymaking, by talking about rules that are understandable, workable and enforceable, and by clearly delineating what it is not about. It is high time to make progress and to arrive at such a discussion without immediately shooting in the instrumental solutions. It is better to have this discussion now than to wait for an incident that will stir up this discussion, with all the consequences this will have for the transparent democracy in which we all want to continue to represent our interests.