After extensive civil society campaigning, Chile has a new law on lobbying. Due to the efforts of civil society and the near unanimous support of both houses of the country’s parliament, Chile has become the first country in Latin America with legislation on lobbying disclosure.
Despite its weaknesses, the law represents an important step forward for lobbying transparency in Chile. In the new disclosure system, registration is voluntary. While this may significantly limit how the new regulation might capture lobbying activity, the law outlines a unique way of providing such information in the absence of a mandatory register.
The campaign and civil society
Felipe Heusser, the executive director of Fundacion Ciudadano Inteligente and one of the leaders of the diverse civil society coalition that pushed for the new law, argues that the campaign achieved its goals thanks to both its strategy and willingness to be pragmatic. In terms of strategy, the coalition embraced both web-based advocacy and more traditional direct lobbying. It was due to this combination of these approaches, says Heusser, that the campaign was able to help draft and ensure the passage of the law.
The coalition was also pragmatic in its demands: rather than pushing for a perfect piece of legislation, they were willing to work within the bounds of what was possible. This pragmatism did a few things. First, it allowed them to push for the passage of a bill that, despite imperfections, could be a significant first step. Additionally, their reasonable approach and willingness to negotiate likely engendered a strong working relationship with the politicians and officials on the other side of the table.
The work of civil society, of course, is not complete. Not only will organizations continue to push for better lobbying disclosure practices, they will also play an important role disseminating lobbying information to the public. For example, consider Poderopedia, a Chilean website that explores the relationships between individuals and organizations in the public and private sectors. By mapping these relations through simple data visualization, the tool allows users to get a better sense of the interactions between the private and public sectors that shape the policy making process. A product of crowdsourcing, Poderopedia is a collaborative platform that relies on contributions from users.
Another important tool is Inspector de Intereses. Developed by Fundacion Ciudadano Inteligente, this tool matches elected officials’ voting records with their financial disclosures to detect potential conflicts of interest. While Inspector de Intereses doesn’t explore lobbying information in particular, it does reveal the potential influence that private interests might have over public policy and the decisions of elected officials. Tools like this help citizens, journalists, and other actors make sense of often confusing narratives, and are therefore an integral part of citizen oversight and public scrutiny.
While the campaign was effective in pushing for and ensuring the passage of the bill, it is still unclear how strong this new law will be. Registration is entirely voluntary, and thus the activities of many active lobbyists will remain hidden from the public. As Miguel Paz of Poderopedia argues, in the absence of a legally enforceable system the success of the register will rely on the willingness and honesty of lobbyists.
That being said, the law provides an interesting alternative. If a lobbyist is interested in meeting with a public official, they have to submit a meeting form saying, among other things, who they represent and what they want. Along with a summary of the meeting, this information is added to the public register by the independent Information Commissioner. If there is a high level of compliance, this system could provide the public with a more robust picture of lobbying activities.
One aspect of the legislation that will need to be addressed is which government officials are covered by the law. As currently written, a lobbyist meeting with a mid or low level public official does not need to submit a meeting form. Importantly, civil society organizations are encouraged to request changes to the list of government officials covered under the legislation.
Furthermore, Chile’s law seems to be one of the very few in the world that places part of the burden of disclosure on public employees. After meeting with a lobbyist, officials must submit a summary of their meeting to the Information Commissioner, who will then publish the summary. As far as we know, only Poland requires government officials to play a role in disclosure. There are arguments for and against involving public officials in lobbying disclosure, but little evidence proving whether or not such as arrangement can be effective. We are curious to see how this plays out in Chile.
The law has passed, but the fight for lobbying transparency in Chile isn’t over. Cooperation between government officials and civil society was a crucial part of getting this law passed, and continued collaboration will help ensure that the law is successfully implemented. In the coming months, a few critical things missing from the law should be addressed. Data standards, for example, are not mentioned in the legislation. Making lobbying information accessible, open and searchable is critical. Tools that try to make sense of lobbying and influence in the country — such as Poderopedia and Inspector de Intereses — would be significantly improved with open, high-quality lobbying data.
Weaknesses aside, this law represents a significant first step for Chile and the region — one that can, and should, be improved upon going forward.