There is increasing activity all round the world by interest groups aiming to influence government. There is much criticism of interest groups – indeed even the description of them as interest groups is somewhat pejorative – but they fulfil an extremely valuable function and should be encouraged. I work particularly with business associations, but these comments would apply equally to other interest groups, whether membership organisations or single issue lobby groups.
Interest groups undertake research, either directly or by commissioning researchers, and this provides objective data to all stakerholders, at least if it is undertaken rigorously. In many countries, and especially in developing countries, there is a lack of evidence so the work of interest groups is an essential contribution to the policy debate.
We all, as citizens in democracies, have a right to lobby government and persuade it of our point of view. This is not just confined to election time – and in any event, we may not accept all the contents of a manifesto – but is appropriate at any time. As individuals, we are likely to struggle to get our voice heard – which is why so many people organise themselves into groups so that they have more chance of having their voice heard. Businesses are the same. They worry about the impositions through regulation and taxation all of which increase the cost of doing business. Business recognises that being responsible members of society means that they have to pay tehir share of tax and need to conduct themselves in a way that does not put people or the planet at risk, but nevertheless they want to minimise the burden. So they too form associations – to advocate on their behalf.
Associations working with government on regulation and legislation builds legitimacy and buy-in. There is good evidence that where business has been consulted and involved, then the final policy is better; certainly there are less likely to be unforeseen consequences. If businesses recognise the need for regulation and if they perceive that the private sector has influenced the final shape of the policy and regulation then they will be much more likely to accept it and abide by it.
There are concerns however that too much lobbying is opaque; that lobbying serves narrow vested interests rather than the wider private sector or better still society at large; and that influence is bought rather than based on evidence and compelling argument. That is why some governments have legislated to regualte the lobbyists. The US introduced a code of conduct as early as 1946 though it was revised in 1995. Germany introduced a code in 1951. Australia introduced a code in 1983, then abolished in 1996, but reintroduced one in 2008. Canada introduced a code in 1989. Often there is a need to register as a lobby group and to record all interactions with government, which can be onerous. In many cases, these codes only apply to professional lobbyists and not to organisations, such as business associations, which have a wider role but also occasionally advocate on behalf of their members. The principles enshrined in the codes however could apply just as much to all interest groups and adopting them could help interest groups to build relationships with their stakeholders.
For many developing countries, regulating those who lobby is a long way down a list of priorities likely to include health, education, balancing the trade deficit, promoting trade, creating jobs etc. And indeed, it is on these very topics that many of the interest groups are lobbying. Interest groups could however be much transparent about their dealings with government.
So, here are some suggestions which could either be incorporated into an existing code of ethics or code of conduct or could form the basis of a lobbying code by which interest groups would voluntarily abide:
Integrity: We will undetake all our relationships with elected politicians, public officials and other stakeholders with integrity and honesty.
Transparency: We will be open and transparent about all of our lobbying activities whilst respecting confidentiality
Professionalism: We will observe the highest professional and ethical standards.
Accuracy: We will ensure, as far as possible, that all research evidence is accurate, unbiased and up to date. We shall now knowingly mislead and will aim not to do so inadvertently. We will publish all our research so that stakeholders can both see the results but also check it for accuracy.
Confidentiality: We will not divulge confidential information obtained through our advocacy activities.
Transparency: We will publish all our policy position statements so that stakeholders can see our position and our arguments.
Wider interests: We will aim as far as possible to balance the interests of different stakeholders in the development of our policy positions and will not seek advantage for a narrow goup of businesses if that has the effect of disadvantaging other businesses.
Integrity: We will base our arguments on evidence and argument and will not engage in corrupt practices to influence policy. We will neither offer nor accept gifts beyond token business mementoes.
Conflicts of interest: In the event that there are conflicts of interest, we shall declare them clearly.
Economist: Germany’s Corporate Lobby: http://www.economist.com/news/business/21651270-corporate-lobbying-booms-stronger-regulation-needed-turning-american
Economist: Courting the State: http://www.economist.com/news/business/21651269-upside-professional-lobbying-courting-state
Transparency International: Lobbying in Europe: https://www.transparency.org/whatwedo/publication/lobbying_in_europe
Government of Australia: Lobbying Code of Conduct: http://lobbyists.pmc.gov.au/conduct_code.cfm
Government of Canada: Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct: http://www.ocl-cal.gc.ca/eic/site/012.nsf/eng/h_00013.html
European Union: Code of Conduct for Interest Representatives: http://www.euractiv.com/pa/commission-adopts-code-conduct-eu-lobbyists/article-172840