The Real Power of Lobbyists

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This year I spoke in a panel during the Night of the Lobbyist. The topic discussed was “How powerful are lobbyists really?” How good or bad is it that lobbyists exert influence on the political decision-making process? Inspired by the panel I wrote a blog in hope to answer that question.

Lots of hobbyists, lots of mistakes 

Lobbying is a very difficult job. We need to put the power of lobbyists in that perspective. Politics is not a hard science. It’s a people business. The dynamics are therefore highly volatile, and highly un-predictive. Even in the steady and boring Brussels, you can’t plan everything. And while I can draw out a perfect lobby plan, it is almost impossible to execute a perfect lobby. Even in high-stakes files, where nothing may go wrong, things go wrong constantly. Most of the time you are putting out fires.

To be able to plan and execute so well and in general manage the political discourse you need to be extremely skilled at a lot of different stuff. You need to be able to read the legislation, be good at political communication, be able to talk to civil servants, maintain a network, organise events, commission infographics. It takes an incredible amount of skill, energy and time. And in all honesty, I am not sure how many lobbyists actually operate at such a high level. I don’t think many. Even the ones that are very good often are limited by what the organisation will allow them to do. Even I am not sure if I operate at the level I would like to have myself believe. It’s just so much and sometimes too much. So a lot of words to explain that lobbying is a very difficult profession and only the most skilled have a real impact.

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The Rise of the Superlobbyist 

Having spent most of this blog downplaying the impact of lobbyists we need to look at the other side of the coin. There are absolutely bonafide lobbyists out there that have an impact on politics, policy and legislation. It happens every day. Most of it is actually uncontroversial. As a Green MEP once explained eloquently; A good idea is a good idea and it doesn’t matter where it comes from. Often policymakers are very grateful you pointed out blind spots to them or were able to deliver vital information to them. But there are a couple of lobbyists that are in a league of their own. I know a dozen that are able to influence the outcome of policy debates, almost regardless of the topic. What these “Superlobbyists” have in common is an incredible understanding of power dynamics, procedures, political communications and a superb network. Is it good or bad that such individuals are allowed to enter the game? Would it be fair to ban individuals from politics? 

Network corruption 

In 20 years of lobbying, I have never seen corruption. A lot of debate around the moral aspects of lobbying centers (too) much on transparency. I don’t think we talk enough about network corruption. Network corruption is the form of corruption in which the interaction of multiple actors within a social network results in corruption but in which the individual behaviour as such is not necessarily corrupt. I will give a couple of examples; Organisations that beforehand know when calls for proposals are being launched or were even able to influence calls for proposals, unparalleled access to (unofficial) documents or insider information, backdoor deals outside the reach of the network. We should have a conversation about equal access to the decision-making process for all, and not only by people that are “insiders” or part of a powerful network. 

There is no democracy without lobbying 

In order to have a sensible discussion about the power of lobbyists we should first change the paradigm of how we speak about lobbyists. Lobbyists are just as necessary for a functioning democratic state as journalists and lawyers. In many countries petitioning the government is an actual right in the constitution. And rightfully so, lobbying gives individuals and individual organisations a fighting chance when faced with a powerful government.  What we therefore should do is make sure we teach lobbying and advocacy in our schools. Moreover, I would also propose that people that cannot afford a lobbyist would be able to have the government assign one to them. Just as we have subsidized legal aid in many countries, we should have subsidized Public Affairs help. But most importantly we should stop talking about lobbying as a murky business and treat it as we treat journalism, lawyers and all other elements belonging to a healthy functioning democracy based on rule of law and without which it cannot function. 

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