Announcing Sunlight’s international lobbying disclosure guidelines

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With more and more civil society organizations in the open government universe recognizing that “thorny issues” — such as political finance transparency or surveillance — need to be tackled somewhat more vehemently, we are eager to seize the momentum and start a hopefully constructive dialogue around an embarrassingly under- or unregulated area: lobbying disclosure. A few weeks back, with the support of our friends at the Open Knowledge Foundation, we took the first steps to create a community of interested advocates, activists and academics, and launched a public working group around the world of influence.

Today, we are excited to announce our draft lobbying disclosure guidelines and invite the community to provide input on these recommendations.

The world of influence

Around the globe, there are only a handful of countries that have some sort of regulations on lobbying, and even these laws — with a few notable exceptions — are so weak and limited in their effect that it`s as though they did not exist. As always, the lack of political will is an important factor in the weak or non-existent laws that regulate lobbying disclosure in most countries, but not the only one to blame.

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By its nature, lobbying is indeed very difficult to define: We know it includes efforts by those who are paid to influence decision makers in the legislative and executive branch, but is it also grassroot activism and journalism? We think it is. At least in some cases. So then should the law require journalists and activists to register in a lobbyist database? Probably not.

Adequate definitions certainly do not substitute for a healthy transparency ecosystem that is essential for reform; isolated proposals almost never get the necessary political buy-in. Even when countries do manage to create lobbying laws, many of these attempts are doomed to fail because of inappropriate definitions of who constitutes a lobbyist, what is considered lobbying activity, and who might be a target of lobbying.

Some of the definitions fail to cover a significant part of professional lobbyists who make regular contact with politicians, while others miss an entire branch, such as the executive. At another extreme, many of the proposed or existing lobbying regulations fail because of concerns that they are too broad and thus unintentionally limit the freedom of expression or “discourage all constituents from engaging” with their representatives.

The lobbying guidelines

The Sunlight Foundation has created guidelines to start a conversation and encourage the community to reach a consensus on basic principles around lobbying transparency. Experience shows that meaningful change in the world of influence is almost always driven by scandals – such as the Abramoff case in the U.S. And if there’s one thing we never run out of in politics, it’s scandals. Our somewhat pragmatic goal is thus to empower local activists in their fight for reform, so that whenever a new scandal is unfolding, they will backed up by the necessary ammunition — aka strong arguments and a powerful community.

In doing this work, we’re hoping to create a stronger starting point for reformers throughout the world, to help activists and lawmakers operate in a supportive international context, and to empower use and analysis of lobbying disclosures. On that front, we’ve already seen innovative use of civil society tools such as Influence Explorer and LobbyPlag that enable people to convert lobbying information into meaningful narratives, making it easier for individuals to understand the dynamics of the decision-making process, and thus strengthening public oversight of lobbying.

Based in part on our experiences working to make lobbying more transparent in the US, the guide is organized into four parts: first, a section on definitions of key terms and the basic principles to make a lobbyist registry more robust; second, guidance on the minimum information that should be disclosed; third, a section on how this information should be collected and in what formats it should be published; and finally, some basic recommendations on enforcement and oversight.

We need your input

Again, the guide is intended as a conversation starter. We encourage the transparency community to give their input in this commentable document and help us refine these norms in a collaborative manner. We are especially curious to hear your input on the definitions we offer, and to verify the international examples we’ve collected – we might be missing some important aspects or internal dynamics.

You can leave your comments in the document or write to us at international@sunlighftoundation.com before January 6th 2014.

We look forward to hearing from and working with many more of you in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, we encourage you to join the lobbying working group.

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