More transparency or more voices?

Why lobby regulation should focus on setting the political stage differently, rather than adjusting the spotlights

Bert Fraussen and Caelesta Braun


Proposals to regulate lobbying often aim to improve the transparency of policy processes. Think about the EU Transparency Register, or the public agendas of the European Commission. While this obviously provides more insight into which actors play what role in the political theatre, it is questionable whether more spotlights also result in higher levels of access to policymakers for a larger and more diverse set of societal interests. In this piece, we argue that proposals to regulate lobbying should focus more strongly on the creation of a level playing field. This requires a different role of public authorities and government officials when it comes to regulating lobbying behavior. More specifically, measures that target the political mobilization of societal voices are imperative to improve the effectiveness and legitimacy of public policy. Public institutions should aim at setting the stage rather than installing (ever) more spotlights.

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Lobbying as backstage political behavior that violates the public interest?

The controversy about lobbying often reflects a widespread concern that a small group of vested (often corporate) interests are pulling the strings behind the political curtain, and influences public policy in a way that leaves policymakers largely inattentive to the preferences of citizens. Lobbying is often portrayed as an “insider game”, with “wheeling and dealing” happening behind the scenes in informal meetings with decision-makers. As this often is the dominant frame in media coverage of lobbying activities at the national and EU level, it is no surprise that many proposals to regulate lobbying focus on increasing the transparency of policy processes, and providing more information on the interactions between lobbyists and members of parliament and government officials. The underlying assumption of lobbying as backstage behavior that violates the public interests typically results in a focus on (ever) more spotlights. Think of the long-standing public lobby registers in Canada and the United States, and recent initiatives to establish mandatory (such as in Ireland, Poland, France and Austria) or voluntary registers (like in the Netherlands, Belgium and the EU), that provide background information on the organization and policy focus of lobbyists. Additionally, we have seen mandatory (EU) a voluntary (the Netherlands) initiatives requiring policymakers to publish their schedules including meetings with lobbyists. The idea of such spotlights is that transparency disciplines behavior, thereby decreasing potentially illegitimate actions and offering more opportunities for political and public control. Combined, these measures should ultimately lead to decision-making outcomes that put the public interest front and center.

Will more spotlights induce better lobbying behavior and public policy?

It is very questionable whether transparency alone is an effective way of regulating lobbying and altering the behavior of the key players. More fundamentally, one could wonder whether any regulation of lobbying activities can have a meaningful impact. After all, as professional lobbyists often and rightly argue, it is impossible to capture all lobbying activities, given the multitude of formal and informal channels they can use to engage with policymakers. The omnipresence of lobby activities has profound implications for the design of regulatory and policy instruments to achieve more ethical and responsible lobbying. One the one hand, interest representation is a crucial aspect of democratic political systems and public governance. On the other hand, the bias in the societal voices that get organized and heard by policymakers, with economic interests often being more numerous and resourceful, conflicts with the principles of a representative democracy. As eloquently described by Baumgartner and Leech: “groups are at the heart of the political process; they are central to the process of representation just as they are key elements of how democratic representation can be distorted through influence and one-sided mobilization (…) they work in almost every conceivable way to affect the government, sometimes for the better, often for the worse” (1998: 188). As a result, any attempt to regulate lobbying should acknowledge its vital and essential contribution to democracy, yet also has to consider the significant negative externalities. Squaring this circle is by no means in easy task. We argue that it requires taking a view of interest representation as a dual process of organizational dynamics and strategic activities.

Why both political mobilization and strategic behavior should inform lobby regulation

Interest representation is essentially a dual process based on two equally important pillars: it concerns the mobilization and organization of societal interests, and their political-strategic behavior. This duality often goes unnoticed in lobby regulation.

The first pillar of interest representation –political mobilization- is essentially an organizational process of either a collective or individual nature (or both). The collective nature of political mobilization is reflected in organizations representing the interests of a specific group in society. These interests can range from economic concerns, voiced by industry federations such as CEFIC, or preferences of citizens, in their role as consumer (BEUC) or supporters of groups who advocacy for environmental-friendly policy measures (European Environmental Bureau). Yet, companies and public institutions (e.g. cities like London or regional governments such as Bavaria) also frequently engage with policymakers. While their policy engagement has a more individual character, they too face the challenge of positioning public affairs within their own organization, and establishing ties to relevant internal and external stakeholders. The second pillar of interest representation –political-strategic behavior - includes all efforts to shape public policy, such as participating in policy consultation, providing evidence to committee hearings, yet also engaging in direct meetings with members of parliament or organizing a media campaign around a particular policy issue.

Often, the notion of “lobbying” is only preserved for the second pillar, the political activities of interest groups and lobbyists. Making this behavior more visible and transparent is frequently a key objective of lobbying regulation. One of our concerns is that these type of measures only address the tip of the lobby iceberg, as they overlook the process of political organization and mobilization. This is a critical omission, considering that successful mobilization of a variety of societal voices is a key condition for effective and balanced interest representation.

The interest representation matrix: a tool to evaluate the state of lobby regulation

We propose the Interest Representation Matrix as a tool to evaluate the state of Lobby Regulation by combining both elements of political mobilization and political-strategic behavior. It thereby serves as a framework for evaluating existing lobby regulation and for considering meaningful instruments to achieve responsible lobbying and better interest representation. To do so, the Matrix summarizes the key negative externalities related to access to policymakers (policy input), transparency of public decision-making (policy process), and conflicts of interests (policy output). It furthermore clarifies how these externalities manifest themselves during the two pillars of interest representation, political mobilization and strategic behavior. We argue that effective lobby regulation should always be informed by the implications for both the political mobilization and the political activities of different groups in society.

Table: The interest representation matrix: a tool to evaluate lobby regulation

The Dutch state of play: how transparency leads to blind spots in lobby regulation

To clarify how the interest representation matrix can be applied to assess lobby regulation, we analyzed the two most recent political initiatives that aimed to address the role of lobbying in policy processes in the Netherlands, the parliamentary memo Lobby in Daylight and the official government response to this legislative initiative.

We observed a strong emphasis on measures that aim to improve transparency, such as the establishment of a (more detailed) lobby register, the online publication of the agendas of ministers, and a proposal to introduce a legislative footprint that accompanies each major piece of legislation. The main rationale is that increased visibility will discipline lobbyists and policymakers, and in this way limits the risk of legislation tailored to particular interests, as well as reduces the likelihood of conflicts of interests. Importantly, the current set of measures and proposals has a blind spot for the most fundamental challenge related to interest representation, namely an unequal playing field between different groups in society. This unequal playing field affects the representation of disadvantaged interests at the input, process and output phase of the policy process, and as such results in a triple disadvantage. First of all, disadvantaged groups are often not organized politically, or the organizations that aim to represent their interests have very limited resources, forcing them to be very selective in their policy engagement and limited in their choice of lobbying tactics. Consequently, they often do not have a seat the table where political decisions that affect their lives are being made. Their absence also means that there is a big risk that their concerns are not, or too a much lesser extent, taken into account by decision-makers.

Even measures that do focus on the mobilization of societal interests put most emphasis on a more open nature of policy processes that (assumedly) provide participation opportunities to everyone (such as increased use of internet consultations), or seek to reduce certain competitive advantages (such as a cooling off period for former ministers and high-level civil servants). In sum, most suggested instruments involve a more “open” attitude of the government. Specific instruments or measures that more directly affect the organization and political involvement of societal stakeholders, or initiatives to make policy processes more accessible to less professionalized groups, are almost completely absent. While combined the implemented and proposed measures will surely shed more light on the political theater in the Netherlands, it remains doubtful whether these initiatives will enable excluded groups to enter the scene and play a significant political role.

The situation in the Netherlands is not unlike the regulatory landscape in other countries, where measures to regulate lobbying are frequently characterized by their more symbolic nature, such as the introduction of voluntary public registers that only capture an extremely small portion of all interactions between lobbyists and policymakers. In our view, a more effective and inclusive involvement of societal interests in policymaking requires a more targeted approach, with public officials taking a different and strategic role in the selection, support and consultation of societal stakeholders. To truly ensure a more diverse cast, policymakers need to set up the stage in a profoundly different manner.

About the Authors

Bert Fraussen is Assistant Professor at Leiden University, Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs. His research agenda integrates the organizational design and development of political organizations, notably interest groups, and their involvement in public policy. Particular topics of interest include relations between interest groups and policymakers and the role of stakeholders in policy advisory systems. Bert’s work has been published in journals such as the Public Administration, Political Studies, Policy Sciences and the European Journal of Political Research.

Caelesta Braun is Associate Professor at Leiden University, Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs. Her research expertise includes political advocacy, interest group politics, public decision-making, bureaucratic politics and regulatory governance. She studies the role of non-state stakeholders in public decision-making and regulation and how we can make sure to involve stakeholders in executive politics in an inclusive and effective way. In addition, she studies how stakeholders can succesfully strategize to influence legislative and regulatory decision-making. Her work has been published in journals such as Governance, Public Administration, Journal of European Public Policy and West European Politics.