What went wrong in lobbying regulation

Lobbying regulation is not only about transparency, and is not only in laws

Alberto Bitonti and Claudia Mariotti

While various types of lobbying regulation continue to be devised in different political systems in the world, some questions remain relevant from both a scientific and practical point of view. How can we define a lobbying regulation? What are the principles and the practices that should be pursued by a policy of lobbying regulation? And what is the lobbyists’ stance on this matter?

In the article Beyond transparency: the principles of lobbying regulation and the perspective of professional lobbying consultancies, recently published in the Italian Political Science Review, we addressed these questions, highlighting the need for a somehow new approach on this matter.

First, in terms of principles, regulating lobbying cannot be only about pursuing transparency. Most reflections in the literature focus on this principle, studying how much different regulatory frameworks shed light on lobbying activities. Most of existing lobbying regulations exhibit the same focus, aiming to make lobbying transparent and easily accessible and known to the public, so that improper behaviours are discouraged by the “sunlight… [as] best of disinfectants”. However, as confirmed by the interviewed practitioners (and by the public consultation that the EU Commission made on its Transparency Register a few years ago), also other principles are relevant and should be considered, both in regulating lobbying and in studying such regulations: the (fair) equality of access of different interest groups to policymaking processes, and the accountability of policymakers themselves. The philosophies of open government and deliberative democracy provide solid theoretical arguments (that we explore in the article) to justify such expansion of principles.

Therefore, our thesis is that most lobbying regulations in the world end up being essentially flawed in the pursuit of their goals, as they rely on weak assumptions and do not consistently pursue the three principles together, thus generating vast loopholes and insufficiencies.

Secondly, lobbying regulation is not to be found only in laws on lobbying. As mentioned by other reflections in this blog, “lobbying exceeds the reach of a single law”. We might go even farther, saying that lobbying exceeds the reach of formal laws in general, as often sub-legislative rules (e.g. internal regulations of ministries and parliaments), norms (habits and customs, codes of conduct, broader political cultures), or even practical frameworks (such as the forms used by governmental authorities for consultations and dialogues with stakeholders, or even the design of digital platforms sometimes used with that purpose) are equally able to ‘channel’ or ‘steer’ the interaction between lobbyists and policymakers in a certain direction. That is why we can’t only look at transparency registers and enforcement of lobbying laws, but we need to take into consideration a wide variety of other measures (legislative or not), concerning the physical access to governmental buildings, political financing, the conflicts of interest of policymakers, the procedures of consultation with stakeholders, the regulatory impact assessments (RIAs) of policies, the more or less institutionalized dialogues between governmental authorities and various interest groups, the legislative/administrative footprints of public decisions, the public agendas of policymakers, and many other aspects that generally affect the interaction between interest groups and policymakers.

The definition of lobbying regulation we adopt, then, is the following: “the set of rules, norms, and frameworks that aim to shape how lobbying is done in a specific political system, regarding a wide range of topics and domains relative to the interaction between policymakers on the one hand and interest groups and lobbyists on the other”.

As a consequence, however methodologically difficult this can be (we are fully aware of the complexity of the task), comparative research on lobbying regulation may take advantage of such expanded vision, by enlarging its scope and depth, covering different macro-dimensions beyond transparency, and multiple sources of lobbying regulation beyond formal laws.

All cooperative research efforts on this front should be certainly encouraged, and would be warmly welcomed.

About the authors

Alberto Bitonti is Lecturer of Political Communication and Post-doc Research Fellow at Università della Svizzera Italiana (Switzerland), Professor of Politics at IES Abroad Rome, and Adjunct Professor of Methodology of Social Sciences at LUISS Guido Carli University (Italy). He has been a Visiting Fellow at the Department of Political Science at Yale University (New Haven, CT), at the Governance Lab (New York University - Northeastern University, USA), at the School of Public Affairs at the American University (Washington DC), at the Newberry Library of Chicago (IL), and made research and taught in various universities and research institutes in Europe, earning his Ph.D. (Università di Roma Tre, 2011) by developing research on the philosophy of lobbying and the concept of Public Interest. His research is grounded in political philosophy, political science, and communication studies, with a specific research interest in lobbying and public affairs, political communication and democratic innovation. Trying to bridge the gap between academic research and policy action, he provides advice to a variety of governmental institutions, NGOs, firms, and political groups, working to promote open government and innovation in the political world.

Claudia Mariotti is Lecturer of Italian Politics at the Department of Political Science at the University of Roma Tre, and Adjunct Professor of Italian Politics and Organized Crime at CIEE Rome (Italy). She has been an Erasmus Visiting Fellow at the Department of Political Science at the University Carlos III of Madrid (Spain), and an invited speaker on Italian politics in various universities and research centers in Europe. Her research focuses on Italian political parties, political polarization, the dynamics of leadership, and lobbying and interest groups.