I hate lobbyists. And I am one. But they are absolutely necessary.
I have a list as long as your arm on what’s wrong with lobbying. But the fact is, lobbying matters in a modern democracy.
I hate lobbyists as much as the next man. My only problem is, I’m one of them.
That said, I ought to put the case forward for why lobbying matters in a modern democracy. And I’m convinced that it does, for three reasons.
First, a caveat. I am not talking about cash for access, which is only ever wrong. I am not talking about getting unfair advantage, which is also only ever wrong. I’m talking about firms, non profits, charities, social outfits – anyone with a claim to the policy making process – being able to get a full and fair hearing.
So, here are the three reasons why lobbying is necessary.
First, government is hideously complex. In fact it is deranged.
Here’s an anecdote from a friend of mine who was in the Cabinet Office under the previous administration. He worked on a small piece of policy and had the Minister’s say-so to implement it. Even with this behind him, he had to go back and forth between departments, getting an agreement in one place, only to see it unpicked in another department, forcing him to start the process all over again.
His rule of thumb is that you need six iterations before yes means yes. He also says that this took up months, working full time. And he was inside the system.
Most people who need to talk to government have something better to do, like run their firms.
So, you see, this is one of the key arguments in favour of lobbyists: to help others get to the bottom of the kafkaesque system that passes for UK government.
The second reason is that politics is, well, political. A government has a public policy agenda. But it also has its party agenda, its beliefs, values, dreams, hopes, and ambitions.
All parties come to government with fire in their bellies; they are going to revolutionise something or other. And each time, their way of doing it is completely different from the previous incumbents.
It’s a cultural thing. And a lobbyist can advise what issues matter, which are destined for the long grass, and how they might affect policy development.
Thirdly, it is a deeply unfashionable thing to say, but people and relationships matter.
Politics comprises a band of people with a certain allegiance and way of seeing things. They operate in a strange place that is both a citadel and a bunker.
At the heart of the citadel-bunker, two things happen to them. They get assaulted on all sides by vested interests and their horizons shrink as they race to deliver.
A No10 staffer told me he never left his room at last year’s party conference to avoid getting accosted by ear-benders (my phrase I hasten to add). In this situation, you come to depend on friends and people you know. It’s a short hand validation process.
This is not to say a government doesn’t provide due space to other organisations - of course it does. But I would suggest there is a sliding scale.
An organisation with no name recognition and no friends in government will find it hard to get a hearing just by writing a letter requesting a meeting. This is undoubtedly wrong. But unfortunately it’s the way it is.
So, much for the defence of lobbying (yes I prefer to call it public affairs). Now for the boot.
I have a list as long as your arm on what’s wrong with lobbying.
In my view, there are too many people in the industry who are there for a ride, rather than to help make better policy.
For the record, I’m agnostic about big business having the ear of government. Why shouldn’t it, as long as there is full transparency and accountability? (The Fox-Werrity affair failed on both these counts.) But what I am passionate about is everybody else also being able to reach the ear of government.
It shouldn't be about buckets of money.
And here’s the rub.
Charities lobby, the public sector has been known to do it, nonprofits do it. Even Prince Charles does it. But there is one group of people who consistently don’t get to do it – the ‘’little folk’; small outfits, shoestring charities, and citizen groups.
It is their voices that aren’t represented enough at the heart of our system. This is one reason why I believe that the Big Society, if it ever does come to anything, could herald the biggest reform of political power since, oh, maybe, universal suffrage?
Meanwhile, I have a plan for how the lobbying industry could make its contribution to a better politics: ‘Citizen-Public Affairs’. I believe the lobbying industry should offer a free advisory service to small groups who, for whatever reason, need to enter the political arena.
Every practitioner could offer a free consultation covering such advice as: the background to a policy, how to frame an argument, the relevant decision-makers, what activity to take along. Perhaps professional recognition would depend on this sort of thing being made available.
In turn, each agency and in-house team could be tasked with providing a certain number of hours of support per month. In the age of the internet, this would be easy to set up and run.
And what is more, this simple step would be a start on the long road to redressing the imbalance of power in our political system.
Henneke Sharif is an independent public affairs adviser, adviser and board member to a number of think tanks, and a visiting lecturer at Greenwich University. She tweets at @hennekesharif
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