Lobbying Disclosure Guidelines

Lobbying, broadly defined, is an effort by an individual or group to influence the decisions of any branch of government through direct contact with decision-makers. At its best, lobbying should support government decision makers in order to allow them to make more informed choices. Unfortunately, when lobbying represents only one side of an issue, or when lobbyists misrepresent the facts or the position of the public, decision-making by government institutions may be flawed.

To fix the process, information about lobbying must be disclosed. Disclosure provides the context essential to understand the political decision-making and the legislative process, empowering government decision-makers and the public to evaluate the messages and track the influence of lobbyists. An effective lobbying transparency system will ensure that the activities of lobbyists — who they represent, what they want, and who they are targeting — are fully and meaningfully disclosed.

Robust disclosure allows civil society tools such as Influence Explorer and LobbyPlag to convert lobbying information into helpful narratives, making it easier for individuals to understand the dynamics of the decision-making process, and thus strengthening public oversight of lobbying.

The Sunlight Foundation has created these guidelines to help policymakers and advocates improve lobbying disclosure and provide a meaningful check and balance on the world of influence. This guide addresses direct lobbying efforts.

  • Foundations of Lobbying Disclosure

    1. 1 Lobbyist Definition

      The term ‘‘lobbyist’’ refers to any individual who, as a part of his or her employment or for other compensation, engages in more than one lobbying contact (oral and written communication, including electronic communication) with an elected official, his or her staff, or high and mid-ranking government employee who exercises public power or public authority, for the purpose of influencing the formulation, modification, adoption, or administration of legislation, rules, spending decisions, or any other government program, policy, or position.

    2. 2 Lobbyist Registration and Reporting

      All lobbyists and organizations that lobby (whether by employing in-house or outside lobbyists) should register and report on their activities in a timely manner. All disclosed lobbying information should be made publicly available.

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  • What Needs to be Disclosed

    1. 3 Information about Organizations that Lobby

      When registering, organizations that lobby should be required to include the following information:

      • Name of the organization;
      • Address and contact information (linking it to existing company registry data is highly recommended);
      • Names of all active lobbyists working on behalf of the organization;
      • Lobbying goals and objectives and issues or legislation lobbied on;
      • Lobbying expenditures, on a per client basis, including spending on efforts to support lobbying and political contributions.

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    2. 4 Personal and Employment Information of Lobbyists

      When registering, lobbyist should be required to include the following personal and employment information:

      • Name and contact information;
      • Date of registration and termination;
      • Employer’s name and contact information;
      • Prior employment;
      • Political contributions made by the lobbyist, including a description of fundraisers sponsored or hosted by the lobbyist.

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    3. 5 Lobbying Objectives and Clients

      Lobbyists should disclose information about their lobbying objectives and who they represent, including:

      • Name of the persons or organizations paying for the lobbying activities;
      • Names of the lobbyists’ clients and contact information;
      • Lobbying goals and objectives or issues or legislation lobbied on (Linking those to other existing datasets related to legislative activity is highly recommended).

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    4. 6 Information about Lobbying Contacts

      Lobbyists should be required to disclose information about who they are lobbying and what they are requesting, including:

      • Name of the high-ranking official or, in the case of mid-level employees, the name of the office lobbied;
      • Date of the lobbying contact (whether oral or written, including electronic communication);
      • Legislation, policies, or issues discussed;
      • Specific action requested;
      • Name of client on whose behalf the contact was made.

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    5. 7 Lobbying Expenditures

      Lobbyists and lobbying organizations should be required to disclose all expenditures on lobbying, including efforts to support lobbying and political contributions. Linking those to other existing datasets related to political contributions is highly recommended.

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  • How Information Should be Collected and Made Public

    Data about lobbying, whether reported on registration forms or contact reports, should be collected and released in a way that lowers the barriers to use and reuse — not in a format that locks up the information and requires reformatting and scraping before it can be analyzed. See our Open Data Policy Guidelines for ideas and best practices that governments can apply when collecting and releasing lobbying data.

    The section below assumes a degree of technological sophistication. While we recognize that these recommendations may be difficult to implement in certain contexts, we encourage governments to aspire towards technologies that will ultimately result in the most robust disclosure.

    1. 8 Timely and Online Reporting and Disclosure

      Lobbyists should be required to file their reports online as close to real time as possible. Information about lobbying should be disclosed online, in a timely manner.

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    2. 9 Free, Open, and Reusable Data

      In order to make information about lobbying meaningful, it should be available free of charge and published in an open format. Data should also be available for bulk download.

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    3. 10 Unique Identifiers

      Unique identifiers should be assigned to all registered lobbyists and organizations. Using identifiers that can be recognized in a global context is highly recommended.

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  • Enforcement and Oversight

    1. 11 Independent Oversight Body

      Lobbying disclosure, reporting, registration, and publication of information should be overseen by an independent government entity.

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    2. 12 Data Checking and Random Audits

      To ensure that lobbying data is accurate and complete, an independent government entity with strong investigative powers should be responsible for checking and randomly auditing the data.

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    3. 13 Sanctions

      To ensure compliance with lobbying disclosure rules or legislation, sanctions must be used to penalize individuals or organizations that fail to comply.

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    4. 14 Public Oversight and Whistleblower Provisions

      Governments should establish, publicize, and operate a mechanism for the public to report suspected noncompliance with lobbying disclosure regulations.

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Contributors: Special thanks to Greg Brown, Lisa Rosenberg, Julia Keseru and Lindsay Ferris for their contributions to these guidelines, Mathieu Gauthier-Pilote for translating the guidelines into French and Jorge Maestre Marín for translating the guidelines into Spanish.