17th Apr 2021


Lobbying standards still not where they should be

  • Revolving doors threaten the integrity of public decision making through heightened exposure to conflicts of interest (Photo: Wolfgang Staudt)

Lobbying is an integral part of the public decision-making process, in Brussels as much as in national capitals.

While there is a risk that this global multi-billion dollar business gives too much weight to the elite and the wealthy – resulting in undue influence, unfair competition, and regulatory capture to the detriment of fair, impartial and effective public policy making - lobbying can provide decision-makers with valuable input and facilitate stakeholder access to policy development and implementation.

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The perception among the general public is that the wrong incentives are driving policy decisions at the expense of the public interest. To ensure the integrity of the public sector, countries need to take action to change this and regain the trust of their citizens.

Since OECD countries adopted a set of Principles for Transparency and Integrity in Lobbying – the sole international instrument aimed at mitigating lobbying-related risks of corruption and undue influence – in 2010, a growing number of countries have been discussing lobbying in the political and policy arena and its role in economic crises, elections, and dwindling trust in governments.

As a response to scandals and demands from citizens for increased transparency and integrity in lobbying, countries have increasingly opted to introduce regulations governing lobbying practices. More OECD countries have regulated lobbying in the past five years than in the previous 60.

While this represents a significant step forward, the regulation of lobbying has too often been a reactive and scandal-driven process instead of forward looking.

The result is that regulations are sometimes incomplete and do not fully meet the expectations of legislators and lobbyists as to what should be disclosed, the adequate level of transparency, and how to manage lobbying systems once they are in place.

A move to increase transparency in lobbying practices at the European Commission coincides with a new OECD report that takes stock of the progress made by OECD countries in implementing the Principles for Transparency and Integrity in Lobbying.

While substantial progress has been made in a number of countries, the report shows that more is needed to safeguard the integrity and quality of the government decision-making process across most OECD countries.

Two items are of particular concern: the “revolving doors” between the public and private sector and the influence of private interests through advisory groups.

The practice of “revolving doors” – the movement of staff between related public and private sectors – continue to threaten the integrity of public decision-making through heightened exposure to conflicts of interest and the misuse of insider information, position, and contacts.

While many OECD members have introduced some form of restriction on public officials’ post-public employment, they have paid little attention to the issue of pre-public employment. Only one-third of OECD countries place any restrictions on hiring lobbyists to fill regulatory or advisory posts in government.

The influence of private interests through advisory groups has also emerged as a growing concern.

An advisory group is a body comprised of private-sector members and/or representatives from civil society that is put in place by the government to provide decision-makers with advice, expertise, or recommendations.

Although members of advisory groups have direct access to decision-makers and are therefore able to lobby from the inside, such groups are not generally required to ensure a balanced representation of interests in their make up. There is therefore a risk that these groups are captured by private interests.

There is an urgent need to continue the process that has been led by the OECD of addressing the credibility of the bodies formally involved in public decision-making and strengthening the underlying institutional conditions that shape the decision-making process.

Answering that need requires a continued push by countries to look into lobbying practices so as to ensure fair decision making and a level playing field for all the stakeholders seeking to influence the process.

Rolf Alter is director of public governance and territorial development at the OECD


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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