The April 6 issue of Dutch newspaper NRC begins with a study by the Open State Foundation which concludes that “a small number of large corporations appear to have excessive access to Dutch ministers.” The article suggests that as a result, these companies have disproportionate amount of influence. This conclusion is both methodologically and practically incomplete.
Let’s start with the methodology. From a political point of view, both the verb to influence and the noun to influence, strictly speaking scientifically, mean by definition only an attempt to gain actual influence. If you want to measure actual influence, a before and after measurement should be carried out. Beforehand, the influence attempt(s) are investigated, and afterwards the result is measured. Such a research method is rarely used. Because it is expensive and takes a lot of time. Quite apart from the fact that not many advocacy organisations and the stakeholders with whom they have contact want to be surveyed. In the Netherlands, Professor Braam, a professor at Twente, did this in the 1970s. Research today is mainly focused on proxies such as reputation, access, budget and positions. They do not measure actual influence in any way. At most, they measure a possible chance of that happening.
Then there is the practical observation. In daily practice it appears that the contact between companies on the one hand and ministries and ministers on the other is more difficult than in the past. And in that same reality it turns out that when companies do have these contacts, the impact of that contact diminishes. In short: people are less and less open to each other’s points of view. This is also known as “the gap”. In addition, another fact which is not considered in the study or the NRC article: the yield of effective lobbying does not lie in the frequency or level of contact but in its result. In other words: rather one good lobbying meeting with a civil servant that leads to a change of position than 10 meetings with ministers in which only pleasantries are exchanged.
Of course it is important that contacts between policymakers and lobbying organisations (whether for-profit or not-for-profit) are carefully recorded. And this could be done better – as the research by the Open State Foundation shows. There is also room for understanding the journalistic angle of the representation of the research. After all, attempted influence is not news, influence results are. But let us continue to interpret and interpret “research” carefully: there is no question of excessive access in the Netherlands, let alone of excessive influence as a result.