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Common Challenges in Lobbying Transparency: Lessons from Europe

Retos comunes en la transparencia del cabildeo: Lecciones desde Europa

Sarah Dickson|

Lobbying often gets a bad rap, framed as an activity fueled by scandals. But, lobbying is a legitimate activity, allowing different interest groups to demonstrate their views to public officials. In a strong democracy, this practice can strengthen the quality of policy-making and public debate and supports free speech. However, without the proper safeguards in place, unregulated lobbying can erode public trust as it can allow powerful groups with privileged access to further their interests at the expense of public good. 

Many OGP members are using their OGP action plans to advance concrete lobbying reforms. According to data from OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism, lobbying, along with beneficial ownership transparency, has been the most ambitious policy area in Europe for OGP members. Reforms include establishing mandatory public registers of meetings between lobbyists and public officials, such as in Madrid, Spain and Ireland.

So what is driving these reforms? In the wake of multiple scandals, such as former UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s alleged dealings with the now defunct company Greensill Capital, elected officials, citizen groups, and even lobbying organizations themselves, are pushing for more transparency, accountability and accessibility of lobbying practices, positioning these reforms within a wider package of initiatives to support transparency and integrity of political decision making. By regulating lobbying, we can shine a light on who is meeting whom about which issues, what money is spent to influence decisions, and how those decisions are ultimately made.

Common Challenges in Lobbying Reform

With lobbying reform garnering growing interest among OGP members both in Europe and beyond, reformers can learn from peers working on similar initiatives. Here are a few common challenges faced by reformers based on our conversations with lobbying reform advocates in Europe:

  • Defining lobbying: This is an ongoing debate in lobbying regulation. Who is a lobbyist? What counts as lobbying? To move forward with regulation, stakeholders must first agree on a commonly accepted set of definitions. Having a common understanding of lobbying is crucial not only for regulators but lobbying and advocacy groups as well, as they require clarity on how their activities are affected.
  • Measuring success: To gauge the success of lobbying regulation, reformers must move beyond numerical indicators (e.g. how many lobbyists have registered in a database) to answer key questions such as: How do we know if the regulation has actually leveled the playing field for smaller businesses? Has this reform prevented powerful actors from dominating decision-making? Has the quality of policy-making improved? 
  • Coordinating across jurisdictions: Lobbying activities are becoming more and more difficult to follow as they are conducted at multiple levels. In Europe lobbying is carried out at the EU, national, and local levels. In Spain, for example, some regions have established lobbying registers, while no register at the national level currently exists. (This may change in the future, as Spain has committed to establishing a national register in its latest OGP action plan.) To implement impactful lobbying regulation, reformers must coordinate among multiple levels and across jurisdictions. 
  • Navigating a constantly evolving landscape: As the landscape of lobbying regulation is becoming increasingly complex, with evolving definitions, new channels for lobbying such as social media, and a diverse set of actors, legal frameworks often struggle to keep up. International institutions such as the OECD encourage countries to take a more comprehensive approach to encompass all the practices, including practices such as indirect lobbying, as noted in their recent report.

OGP as a Platform for Reform

Comprehensive lobbying reform requires multi-stakeholder collaboration between government, legislative bodies, civil society, and the private sector. For example, understanding the needs and concerns of private sector actors (like maintaining reputations and ethical standards, and ensuring a level playing field for smaller businesses) is crucial to secure buy-in. Civil society actors, including investigative journalists, can play an important role in uncovering scandals and communicating the benefits of lobbying regulation. 

Collaborative by design, the OGP action planning process can serve as a platform to bring these groups together to co-create ambitious and impactful lobbying reforms. Many OGP members in Europe have found the OGP platform to be an effective tool for advancing lobbying reform initiatives. For examples of sample OGP commitments on lobbying, see Transparency International’s brief here and International IDEA’s brief here.

Ireland used their OGP action plan to commit to the launch of lobbying.ie, a lobby register “designed to provide information to the public about who is lobbying whom about what”.PHOTO: Credit: Lobbying.ie

Looking Forward: Lobbying Reform for Open Renewal

As the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, the OGP Co-Chairs the Republic of Korea and Maria Baron have called on the OGP community to make commitments to tackle the systematic weaknesses in our societies that for too long have held too many back. Lobbying reform can be a key component of comprehensive anti-corruption efforts and ensure that recovery funds are directed towards the public good and not into the pockets of the politically connected. Importantly, while corruption scandals can be the impetus for lobbying reform, they don’t always ensure strong reform. This requires collaborative work among stakeholders to put in place the safeguards needed to prevent powerful groups furthering their interests at the expense of the public good.

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