When I used to visit Washington DC on a regular basis, I had stayed at the Willard Hotel a few times. I remember hearing a story placing the origin of the word ‘lobbyist’ around 1850, in the lobby of that very hotel, where US President Ulysses S. Grant used to hang out to smoke his cigars and sip his brandy. In this anecdote, the former President had called ‘lobbyists’ the many favour-seeking people that would gather in the hotel lobby disturbing his quiet. The story is most certainly a legend. There are references to ‘lobbying’ dating back to 17th century England in connection to one of the lobbies in the House of Commons where the public used to go to speak to their elected members. I once heard someone saying that there’s a reference to lobbying in the Old Testament in connection to a procurement issue for the construction of a temple. Plausibly, lobbying has existed for as long as politics itself.
The “Willard Lobby” story is hardly the only myth about lobbying, and such stories have contributed to the lobbyist profession being one of the most misunderstood ones. The hard-to-die perception of lobbying-makers as business mercenaries exerting undue influence over powerful, complacent politicians is a source of frustration for the many people working in this field. In 2008, US political analyst Lanny Davis wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post headlined “Lobbyists are good people, too.” Based on the low reputation this category continues to enjoy in public surveys, that message hasn’t really come through.
Younger generations are smarter. Based on the increase in the volume of educational offers worldwide on subjects like Public Policy, Public Affairs, and the very subject of Lobbying – including from some of the world’s most prestigious universities – one can only conclude that the interest in this profession is growing. This should not be surprising at all. At its core, Government Affairs (GA) - a more correct denomination for this discipline - is the noble art of mediating and interpreting between different worlds. Government has its own language and so do businesses, and they don’t quite match up. GA fills that gap. To do that, GA professionals must be skilled in both politics and business, in policy and regulatory processes, in advocacy and different types of communication, including social media, of course. Increasingly, they need to be well-versed in Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues and, after the pandemic, in global health matters. And yes, GA is about managing power and influence, two words that still generate discomfort and eyebrow-raising, yet in practical terms are essential to accomplish any initiative.
If in the collective imaginary ‘lobbying’ is associated with corporations and large industries, the reality is that from charities to trade unions, from women and LGBTQ+ rights activists to environmental NGOs, countless organizations are busy representing their interests with governments. Luckily so. Without lobbying, policymakers and legislators would not be made aware of the impact of their decisions on different societal groups.
Most of the negativity surrounding lobbyists would be resolved if this profession were to be adequately regulated.
In 2010, the OECD published its 10 Principles for Transparency and Integrity in Lobbying, recommending, among other things, clear definitions of terms such as 'lobbying' and 'lobbyist', disclosure requirements covering lobbying objective, beneficiaries, and funding sources, and standards preventing revolving door practices and other sources of conflicts of interest.
Over 10 years later, progress has been made, but more needs to be done. However, make no mistake: it is not the 'lobbyists' that are lobbying against more regulation of their profession.