Lobbyists shouldn’t make a deal with politicians

If lobbyists want to continue to have impact, they’ll have to build a better story, understand the government better and take into account society’s expectations, explains Karel Joos, Partner at Interel.

The think tank Friday Group has launched the idea to impose an ethical charter for cabinet workers, as well as a lobby register and even a lobby log book (De Tijd, April 18th). In principle, this is a good idea. The more transparency, the better.

However, this policy forum for young thinkers implicitly makes a fallacy by thinking that contacts between cabinet advisors and lobbyists are key in the process of corporate advocacy. Our experience in the field indicates that no progress will be made in any issue at stake, as long as there are no strong arguments on the table; arguments which moreover have to be compatible with policy intentions. When push comes to shove the so-called privileged contacts are even irrelevant.

Not only can we consider it to be unwise for lobbyists to brawl with policy makers. It’s also useless. There are three reasons for this.

The first reason is that lobbying has evolved from being based on contacts, to being based on content. The interaction between governments, enterprises, pressure groups and civilians has become ever more volatile and complex, leaving lobbyists without a broad and profound knowledge of politics, legislation, procedures, business and mass communications, worthless.

The quality of the information and the power of the analysis are primordial, in order for lobbyists to be able to influence policy making. If you want the policy arguments to be heard, it is necessary to know what policy makers do and why they do it, what drives them, where there might be room to manoeuvre and which elements need to be taken into account.

The second reason lies within the ever growing influence of the outside world on the inside of politics. Coalitions and alliances of like-minded people put an increasingly powerful and direct pressure on government policy. The outside game has become a critical factor when it comes to supporting or attacking the inside game. Policy makers know all too well that a back room solution won’t stand the stakeholders’ stress test – not to mention the public opinion, which has become a true pressure cooker.

The third reason is that lobbyists decreasingly get in contact, in the name of and on the account of their company or their client, with the policy makers. They create more value added as a political advisor to the management, than they do as an extension, mouthpiece or mediator in the field. This is mainly because within the corporate walls, true insights in the functioning of the political world are still scarce. Moreover, policy makers are showing an increasing preference towards having the companies themselves at the table.

In our country, policy making has never been as unpredictable as it is now. In the Belgian political laboratory, the test tubes are bubbling and the centrifuges are buzzing. At the same time, classic policy making suffers from the increasing pressure put on it by civilians who represent their interests in an ever more direct manner, smartly helped by impressive digital communication technology.

Lobbyists need to recognize the fact that they have to improve their game. They have to find better ways of telling their story, learn to better understand the public sector and accept that they have to explicitly take into account the expectations brought forward by society. This is the only way they will have influence and the impact that comes along with it.

Article originally published in De Tijd, 21 April 2015. View here.