Let’s talk lobbying and transparency at Open Knowledge Festival 2014


From banking to data protection, arms trade and climate change; from Washington, D.C. to Brussels, Santiago and Canberra; big business and special interest groups will always find a way to influence public policies.

At its best, professional lobbying has the power to educate public officials and help them make more informed decisions. In reality, influence advocacy has, in many countries, created a new form of policy capture that goes beyond bribery and traditional corruption — but is equally dangerous to our democracies and economies.

Professional lobbyists and policymakers usually negotiate behind closed doors, and do so deliberately: They tend to believe they can do their job better if it remains in the shadows. And even if it does not directly result in political scandals — such as the EU’s Dalligate, the Indian Radia tapes controversy or various “cash-for-questions” scandals in the UK — excessive industry lobbying can misrepresent the facts, disregard diverse perspectives and thus skew public policy.

Still, only a handful of countries have attempted to regulate lobbying, and most of these attempts 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, but not the only one to blame for ineffective regulation. In 2014, there is still no global consensus on who constitutes a lobbyist (Is it only paid professionals? Does it include in-house lobbyists as well as third party representatives?); what is considered lobbying (Should regulations cover grassroot organizing and public relations activity?); and who might be a target of lobbying (Is it only high level public officials or a broader range of civil servants?).

We’re now starting a dialogue to bring lobbying out of the shadows.

The Sunlight Foundation, Access Info Europe, Transparency International and Open Knowledge are preparing a session at OKFestival to boost the conversation around lobbying transparency and gather evidence from the open government community that can guide our future reform efforts.

We believe that a clear and robust lobbying disclosure regime is essential to understanding the dynamics of politics. Opening up information about lobbying also allows civil society to create tools such as Influence Explorer and LobbyPlag, which enable others to convert lobbying information into meaningful narratives; evaluate, fact-check or counter political messages; and track business influence.

During the session, we want to hear more about the challenges activists face when trying to introduce lobbying regulation and how they think lobbying should be defined. We will showcase transparency projects that try to translate lobbying into stories average citizens can relate to. We are planning to talk about how to better advocate for lobbying data, how to translate the information that’s available and how to connect the dots about the influence industry without reliable government data. The session will introduce and discuss ongoing efforts to create globally applicable principles for definitions, disclosure and enforcement, and touch base on advocacy campaigns that proved successful.

There is real need for learning and coordination around the ways in which countries can promote better lobbying disclosure norms. Our hope is this session will result in stronger civil society activities around the issue, and that we can form a network of transparency watchdogs and open government activists who will coordinate and support reform. You don’t have to be an expert in lobbying regulation to attend — we want to begin a dialogue that fits the needs and challenges of a broader segment of this community.