After Washington and Brussels, the debate about the role lobbyists play in a democracy is also on the rise in The Netherlands. Members of Parliament demand more regulation and transparency, and the Dutch Association of Public Affairs Professionals recently presented its code of conduct to them. Though transparency is desirable, the question remains whether (self-)regulation is the best way to achieve it. Often overlooked, an external development has a much bigger influence on the transparency of the lobby sector: the digitalization of society.
From companies to NGO’s and municipalities: many interest groups are trying to promote their viewpoints in our capital. And there is nothing wrong with that. In order to ensure a careful decision making process, it is important that politicians gather information from different parties and then make an integer decision themselves.
Lobbyists often have to decide between two possible approaches. The first option is what you could call the iceberg strategy: lobbying a tiny bit in public (the top of the iceberg) and the rest of the lobby is done below the surface – safe from the often unpredictable public debate. The second option is the so called buoy strategy: put your topic on the agenda clearly visibly (above the water) for all , and plan some specific actions under the water surface for the delicate points.
The rise of digital media not only has significant consequences for the work of politicians and policy makers, but also for those who want to put their issue on the agenda of those decision makers. More transparency is inevitable for lobbyists who want to anticipate the opportunities and threats of digitalization. By employing digital tools in a clever way, any individual can hijack an issue nowadays. The iceberg strategy is thus becoming much riskier. Even the assumption that a lobby will stay under the water surface is not that safe anymore, as the lobbyists of Shell found out when their contacts with the Nigerian government were published on Wikileaks.
With the rise of digital media however, the more transparent buoy strategy offers more and more opportunities. An organization with an engaged online fan base can employ its fans to get a topic on the public agenda. And with the new European Citizens Initiative the importance of an online constituency is only increasing: from 2012 onwards, one million signatures will be sufficient to force the European Commission to respond. This also creates chances for companies. Ebay is just one example of a corporate organization that has already jumped on this opportunity. Within a couple of months, they collected nearly a million signatures for their policy proposal to end unfair online trading practices.
In the digital age, an engaged fanbase is one of the most powerful lobby tools. However in order to employ this tool successfully, companies must let go of a certain amount of control and accept that the digital generation – which shares much of its life online – also demands transparency from companies. To reach real transparency in the lobby sector, the potential influence of digitalization is much stronger than the influence of (self-)regulation. Those who put their energy in regulation, must realize that no iceberg will survive digitalization.