Although the word “lobbyist” may sound like an offense to many Europeans, the influence of lobbyists keeps increasing. At the same time, the structure of current democratic systems in the Western world is constantly being questioned. The Cambridge Dictionary describes lobbying as “the activity of trying to persuade someone in authority to support laws or rules that give your organization or industry an advantage”, and as such, it could indeed seem to be a democratic tool per excellence, as the most straightforward and direct way to communicate one’s needs and wishes to those who are in charge of implementing law. From this point of view, it should be rather surprising that lobbying remains a tool for the few, and mostly, the self interested.
Today there are two options of giving direction to policies in a democracy: to either vote or run for office; one is too little, another is too much. The space in between is occupied by rather timid attempts to organise referendums, to make democracy participatory rather than “guided” by the few, but they don’t quite satisfy the public. Representative democracy has many challenges, and one of them is that citizens are only free during the elections, when they do make a choice; the rest is beyond their control. Channelling knowledge into meaningful action is another big challenge in a world where information is produced much faster than one could ever handle or analyse, and the opacity of institutions, if we address the European context, doesn’t help either. The political discourse in participatory democracies uses every possibility to invoke certain types of communications strategies when talking about the place of citizens in a democracy, for instance, pointing out the importance of voters. However, these democratic (and demagogic) exercises don’t necessarily lead to concrete intervention of citizens in the public sphere, instead, they transform into yet another campaign in favour of democracy but without any tangible consequences.
Although big enterprises do pay the required attention to the image they communicate, like politicians do, they also understand that reaching the important actors in decision-making process is crucial, and that’s why lobbying has been a favourite tool among many companies from Boeing to Google to Monsanto. However, among the citizens the mistrust towards lobbyists seems to be higher than the interest in them. Market dominant firms have created corporate lobbyists: evils in disguise. They make it difficult for any other types of lobbyists to exist in the eyes of the public. At the same time, many Europeans agree on the need for a better-heard, better-represented society, where ideas of each and everyone have a chance to be implemented. Indeed, if civil society had access to the same resources and expertise as corporations, if they had the skills for expressing right their needs, the Brussels-citizens dichotomy would eventually become weaker. So is there a place for “good”, “ethical” lobbying? I would answer – yes.
Yes, because everyone lobbies and everyone is being lobbied: we all try to influence others to our advantage. Despite this, criticism of lobbying is as old as lobbying itself. And yet, perhaps lobbying is not the source of the problem, but lack of lobbying for good causes is. Under the overbearing news about big companies trying to lobby for avoiding fair taxation, we forget that organisations like the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty international, and a plethora of small NGOs are active lobbyists as well. Not only competition laws, largely discussed, are at heart of European Commission’s lobbying interactions, but also public health, environment, consumer protection, and climate action. Thus, it is to their own detriment that citizens erroneously reduce lobbying to the defense of corporate interests.
Yes, “good” lobbying exists, because it has all the potential of being an effective tool against citizens’ disengagement in the EU policy process. The vicious cycle of citizens not understanding the EU policy process, and therefore feeling disenfranchised, and as a result, building a greater gap between the policy makers and those who are affected by their decisions won’t go away unless something changes. On the contrary, more active citizens, collectively mobilized, would encourage a more equal representation of interests and finally, would create well-equipped citizens with a skillset good enough to make themselves heard by the decision-makers.
Lastly, there is a place for “good” lobbying, because… it works. Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is about showing up”. Lobbying might seem far away from Woody Allen’s life philosophy at first glance, but in all fairness, if enough people show up advocating for the same cause, ignorance of it will only be a temporary solution. In addition, tools such as the Transparency Register of the European Commission (database that lists organisations that try to influence the law-making and policy implementation process of the EU institutions) make it incredibly easy to see who shows up and therefore to be as informed as one can possibly be in a negotiation process.
Many organisations, such as The Good Lobby, Citizens for Europe, Soul for Europe choose this difficult path of lobbying for good. They serve as a networking platform for hundreds of organisations and initiatives that share their sources and exchange good practices. They also have very concrete measures such as offering grants, providing pro bono consulting and connecting volunteers and service seekers. The success of such organisations clearly shows the need for such activity and the need for different types of actors to be interconnected. Today, because of the mitigated legal status of lobbying combined with moral criticism and negative connotations, a tension around this profession doesn’t allow us to benefit from its potential to the fullest extent.
But if lobbying is about getting the government to act, strengthening the civil society, forming citizens to become activists, giving them tools to control the work of public decision-makers, then we probably shouldn’t wait until we see lobbying differently, but should rather lobby for the vision we want to have.