Lobbying regulation is an area where political scientists can help strengthen democracy. We usually analyse the effects of existing regulations, and see why, where, and how they are implemented. But Alberto Bitonti argues we can do much more, helping regulators fix loopholes and understand what they really should aim for
Titus Alexander is right. Political science should aim not only to understand and analyse political dynamics, but also to strengthen democracy and make our lives better.
Lobbying is exactly the kind of area where political scientists may fruitfully bridge scholarly analyses with public discussions and concrete practices. They can better explain the contours of concepts frequently polluted by prejudices and misunderstandings. By doing so, they would help improve the quality of public debates in the media and in the public sphere in general. And, crucially, they can promote sound policy choices.
As political scientists, we can do much in this regard, not least comparing lobbying regulations and analysing why and how they are implemented. We can also reflect on how to fix loopholes, and shed light on the very principles that should guide regulations. In times of democratic malaise, corruption scandals, and crises of representation, rebuilding trust in democratic policymaking – and finding tangible ways to put policymakers in a condition to make better decisions – should be a priority for us all.
Different political systems around the world continue to devise various types of lobbying regulation. Yet, meanwhile, some questions seem relevant both scientifically and practically.
What is the goal of regulating lobbying? And what are the boundaries of lobbying regulation? My recent Italian Political Science Review article with Claudia Mariotti addresses these questions. Our piece highlights the urgent need for a new approach to this matter.
To produce relevant, practical consequences, lobbying regulations should focus not on lobbyists, but on policymakers and how they make decisions
For instance, many think that the ultimate goal of regulating lobbying is to make lobbying activities transparent. I do not agree. While transparency can be an important value, it has only an instrumental character. The right question here is not how to make lobbying more transparent. Rather, it is how to make public decisions better.
In this regard, the prime object of our attention should not be lobbyists, but policymakers. Every lobbying regulation that aspires to be effective should focus not on lobbyists and interest groups, but on policymakers and how they make decisions. This shift in perspective produces relevant practical consequences in terms of principles to pursue.
Most reflections in the literature on lobbying regulation focus on the principle of transparency. They study how far different regulatory frameworks shed light on lobbying activities. And most existing lobbying regulations share the same focus. Such regulations aim to make lobbying transparent and easily known to the public, discouraging improper behaviour. As Louis Brandeis famously claimed, 'sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants'.
However, other principles are relevant, too, and we should consider them both in regulating lobbying and in studying such regulations. This has been confirmed by practitioners, by the public consultation that the EU Commission made on its Transparency Register some years ago, as well as by OECD guidelines on this matter. Such principles are:
the (fair) equality of access of different interest groups to policymaking processes (for instance, reforming the way consultations and hearings are usually held);
the accountability of policymakers themselves (for instance, through the provision of policy footprints and plain-language public communication).
The philosophies of open government (pursuing more openness) and deliberative democracy (pursuing more deliberative quality) provide solid theoretical arguments to justify such expansion of principles.
That is why most lobbying regulations in the world end up being essentially flawed in the pursuit of their goals. They rely on the weak assumption that transparency is all we need to make things better. But they do not consistently pursue the three principles together. Thus, they generate vast loopholes and insufficiencies.
There is another 'fix' that political scientists can provide to lobbying regulations (and democracy). It comes from reconsidering the same definition of lobbying regulation. We find lobbying regulation not only in laws on lobbying. Lobbying exceeds the reach of formal laws, as often sub-legislative rules (e.g. internal regulations of ministries and parliaments), norms (habits and customs, codes of conduct, broader political cultures), or even practical frameworks (such as the forms used by governmental authorities for consultations and dialogues with stakeholders, or even the design of digital platforms sometimes used with that purpose) are equally able to 'channel' or 'steer' the interaction between lobbyists and policymakers in a certain direction.
That is why we cannot look only at transparency registers and enforcement of lobbying laws. Rather, we need to take into consideration a wide variety of other measures, legislative or not. These concern physical access to governmental buildings, political financing, the conflicts of interest of policymakers, the procedures of consultation with stakeholders, the regulatory impact assessments (RIAs) of policies, the more or less institutionalised dialogues between governmental authorities and various interest groups, the legislative/administrative footprints of public decisions, the public agendas of policymakers, and many other aspects that generally affect the interaction between interest groups and policymakers.
The set of rules, norms, and frameworks that aim to shape how lobbying is done in a specific political system, regarding a wide range of topics and domains relative to the interaction between policymakers on the one hand and interest groups and lobbyists on the other.
It follows that there is much to do, even beyond formal legislative processes. Political scientists can thus be leading actors in advocating for reform and engaging with policymakers, on lobbying regulation and other topics, to make democracy work better in concrete ways.