New international standards give clear guidance to governments on what they need to do to clean up lobbying. Lobbying has a bad reputation – for many, it conjures up images of greed and those with wealth and power taking unfair advantage of the weak. Multiple scandals throughout Europe demonstrate that without clear and enforceable rules, those who have the best connections and more resources at their disposal can come to dominate political decision-making.
Quite notable is the recent Volkswagen scandal – at face value a story of environmental recklessness and the deception of consumers and regulators on a grand scale, but one with undercurrents of undue influence, privileged access and aggressive lobbying in the private interest. With a reported annual expenditure of €3.3 million and 43 employees involved in the company’s EU lobbying activities, Volkswagen is in the top 10 companies and groups spending the most on lobbying the EU. Car industry lobbyists are also very present in the Commission's expert groups, which have drafted important legislation on environmental standards for the automobile industry. VW sits in five of these influential expert groups.
In the EU’s complex law-making process surrounding emissions testing, evidence suggests that intense lobbying was carried out by carmakers at every turn and there are indications that they have been successful shaping EU legislation to suit their interests.
So what should we do about it? How should countries regulate this type of lobbying? What are the limits of regulation? How do we ensure that decision-making is transparent and participatory so that it serves the public interest rather than private concerns?
To answer these questions, we have published new International Standards for Lobbying Regulation – the result of two years of collaborative work with civil society led by Transparency International, Sunlight Foundation, Access Info Europe and Open Knowledge. This initiative is unique in that it draws on the experience of a broad coalition of civil society organisations active in the field of lobbying transparency and open governance, and goes further than existing regulations and standards.
The standards were drawn up following an intensive review of legislation worldwide and consultation with civil society, government and lobbyists themselves. In addition to giving guidance to governments, the standards can also be used by civil society for benchmarking existing or draft laws and advocating for better regulation.
As of May 2015, at least 20 countries worldwide have lobbying regulation in place at the national level, though the quality of regulation varies widely. Most existing efforts are too narrow in scope and do not take account of the broader three-pronged framework that we advocate for: building transparency, integrity and equality of access in lobbying.
With these international standards at their disposal, governments have no more excuses: priorities should include making lobbyist registers mandatory and enforceable; introducing a legislative footprint to ensure full transparency of decision-making processes; and promoting participation in public decision-making from individuals and groups with a range of perspectives.
This plurality of voices and greater transparency in lobbying would reduce the likelihood of poor decisions being taken in the private interest, decisions that can have a detrimental impact on society and the environment.