The idea is not new, but this week it attracted more publicity than it has done until now. Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) MP Lea Bouwmeester announced that, together with her fraction colleague Pierre Heijnen, she would be submitting a bill aimed at increasing lobbying transparency. From now on, every bill should include a paragraph stating which companies and organisations have exercised influence on the bill.
No more secrecy
Let me get this straight: I think the idea behind Bouwmeester’s plan is excellent. Public affairs have always been shrouded in mystery. Perhaps slightly less now than in the past, but there is still an association with backrooms and whispering at receptions. We have to get rid of that once and for all. Lobbying is part of normal social intercourse and as lobbyists we have no reason to be ashamed of or secretive about our work.
Over the past decade public affairs has evolved into a mature, respected discipline. An increasing number of organisations is professionally engaged in the practice, we have a growing, flourishing professional association, there is a lot going on in the way of training and education, and from 2013 we will even have our own chair.
Civil servants are listening to society
So yes, make it clear which companies and organisations departments have been in contact in formulating new policy. This has a positive side effect, too, even if it is unintentional on the part of Bouwmeester and co.: it shows that civil servants do not formulate bills in splendid isolation, but listen seriously to society’s views. It is up to them (and ultimately the minister and secretary of state) to weigh up all the information and make choices.
CDA (christen democrats) MP Ger Koopmans’ objection to the PvdA initiative (‘It doesn’t matter who exercises influence on a bill, because it is the minister who decides’) cuts no ice with me. Of course the minister decides, but what is wrong with knowing who or what has guided him/her. In fact: don’t citizens simply have the right to know? That fits in perfectly with the fundamental principle of the Dutch Government Information (Public Access) Act.
There are a number of serious negative points to the bill, however. First of all it prompts a definition debate: what actually constitutes lobbying? Does the definition only cover discussions with the ministry or does it also apply to letters, emails, telephone calls and encounters (chance of otherwise). Is a lobbyist who bumps into a civil servant at the sports field or in the supermarket lobbying or not?
Secondly, introducing a transparency paragraph irrevocably implies a tremendous rigmarole, for civil servants but probably for lobbyists, too. After all, every bill generates dozens if not hundreds of lobbyists. Recording all that input is a gigantic task.
Could it not be just a little bit easier? Yes, if The Hague takes a leaf out of Brussels’ book. The European Commission conducts consultation rounds when formulating policy. All parties involved are given the opportunity to say what they think about a bill. All recommendations are then published on a public site. Transparency at its best, structured in a digestible form.
Furthermore, an act is quite an effective means of enforcing the desired transparency. My suggestion is to devote a passage to the topic in the new coalition agreement and test the lobbying paragraph out for a year in one policy area. Health, Welfare and Sport is the most obvious, with a view to the alcohol and tobacco lobbies that the labour party is regarding with suspicion.
Professionalising public affairs
What matters most, though, is that more transparency contributes to the further maturity of public affairs. We have taken significant steps in recent years, but we are not there yet. That much is clear in Lea Bouwmeester’s own choice of words in the notes of explanation to her initiative: ‘Recommending a product – lobbying for it – is permissible, but then in public’. I would like to inform her personally that lobbying is quite different from recommending a product. And if I get to speak to her, I would also like to ask her a question: Is she also going to provide for the contacts between lobbyists and members of parliament in the bill, too?