Published on October 20, 2012

Transparently the wrong question

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Opaque window with shadow of person behind itThe answer to whether lobbying by business and civil society should be made transparent is an obvious yes. The real question is how to bring more voices into government. 

I’m just about to start speaking at a session on Lobbyists: the new hidden persuaders at this year’s Battle of Ideas. I’ve written this post as I prepare my initial presentation. I’ll try to post any further thoughts which occur during  the debate when I get back into the office early next week.

The framing of the session was that on one side of the debate is a set of arguments that democracy is strengthened by having more voices in the policy debate; more transparency will reduce those voices and so weaken democracy. On the other side of the debate, under this framing, are the set of arguments that, because we don’t know who is speaking to government, lack of transparency means that democracy is weakened.

This feels like a non-debate to me.

Of course we must make lobbying more transparent. The government itself is committed to developing a Register of Lobbyists because, as it says in the consultation document:

“a statutory register of lobbyists is an important step towards making politics more transparent. We are determined to keep working to open up politics, to make it more accessible to everyone.”

As this briefing for the UK Civil Society Network on the Open Government Partnership says, at the moment it isn’t clear whether the Register will apply to all, third party actors, civil society organisations and in-house corporate lobbyists. Of course it must, or the incentives it will create to shift lobbying elsewhere will be intense and so negate the register.

We must make lobbying transparent because we know that lack of transparency reduces public trust that the government is taking decisions with the views of all taken into account. If lobbying is untransparent, we don’t know who has been involved in policy making, so we can’t tell which voices are missing – voices which might have something important to add to a decision. And of course a lack of transparency means it is harder to hold those taking decisions to account.

The case for transparency is incontrovertible.

The argument that we need more voices in policy making is also true, as the government recognises in its Civil Service Reform plan – see especially chapter 2. There is plenty of evidence that hearing more voices at early stages in the policy making process makes for better, and cheaper, decisions.

So the question isn’t whether or not we should make lobbying transparent. The question is how do we bring more voices into the policy process? At the moment, except in rare cases where government really makes an effort, smaller civil society organisations, small and medium sized enterprises and citizens are only brought in at the end of the policy making sausage machine, as part of tick-box consultation exercises. We must find ways to bring these voices in at an earlier stage as problems are identified and policies formulated.

We know, from the best cases, that engaging more voices, particularly the public, works. Bringing in alternative view points, experience and knowledge has a number of positive benefits:

  • it can change the perceptions of policy makers about both the problem and the solution; we have seen time and again how it can generate unforeseen outcomes and stimulate creativity.
  • involving more voices means that solutions are more likely to be accepted because they have been adapted to take on board more views – the risks, and costs, of public rejection of decisions is reduced.
  • increased ownership can also mean that civil society organisations, businesses and citizens are more likely to get involved in implementing the decision, thus saving the tax-payer money.
  • getting the process of involving more voices right can help to build trust in governance, having the knock-on effect of making other decisions easier.
  • accountability of those implementing the decision is also increased – bringing further benefits to the public purse – as the additional voices have an investment in seeing the decision implemented properly.

The debate, as framed, is about power, money and influence. And of course, those who have it want to protect it and must not be allowed to do so. The much more interesting debate is how to take the doors that have been opened by the government (through the Civil Service Reform Plan and its new role as co-Chair of the Open Government Partnership) that might just bring more voices into the debate and make our policy making and democracy richer in a very different way.

Image: pni

One Response to “Transparently the wrong question”

  1. Simon Burall
    October 22, 2012 at 9:20 am

    Here’s a few resources from Democratic Audit about lobbying

    On lobbying in relation to government consultation

    On business influence on public policy, including access of lobbyists to Ministers

    On the separation of personal and state interests, including Case Study of the Fox/Werrity saga

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