Lobbygate: new calls to regulate

22 Mar

There's nothing new in calls to regulate lobbyists. Except that right now, with an election looming, there appears to be growing cross-party consensus on the issue (given impetus by the Stephen Byers sting).

Chancellor Alistair Darling has said how, in a democracy, everyone should be free to approach their elected representatives. Yet this view that there is no need for a specialist public affairs business is contradicted by the call to name and regulate practitioners. How many citizens, small businesses or charities would take this step of becoming registered? How many know where to turn amidst the complex layers of local, regional, national and European government? What is a matter for an MP (MEP, MSP or AM), a minister or a Whitehall civil servant?

The answer clearly lies in greater transparency. Representation ('lobbying') should be permitted, but disclosure of special interests should be a requirement. This has been resisted up to now by some firms working for clients who seek to keep their interests private.

The bigger question is this: there's a public perception that big business is overly powerful and able to disproportionately influence government policy. If so, then it's no wonder that there are calls to regulate and control the lobbying business that works on behalf of commercial clients. Greater transparency would address this concern. (President Obama has pointedly stated in the context of healthcare reform: "We proved that this government — a government of the people and by the people — still works for the people.')

But there's a counter argument that government continues to grow and gain influence and that individuals and organisations affected by government (that's all of us) need the tools and knowledge to know where to turn to make our case. This is a case for greater scrutiny of government and public bodies – again, more transparency.

Lobbying receives even more criticism than public relations generally – because it's seen as covert, with influence being exerted in private through personal contacts (the Byers claim to be a 'cab for hire'). Yet lobbyists use a range of public relations techniques including some very public tactics to bring attention to their causes. I don't find it helpful to view public affairs as a completely separate discipline from public relations.

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