20 Responsibility Issues
> Lobbying & Influence


Introducing The Issue 

Firms of all sizes and sectors join trade groups in order that their business interests are represented to government departments, functions or officials. And, in most parts of the world, businesses are free to express their interests and concerns to the government, much like citizens have the right to do so. However, given that influence appears ever easier to buy, and many groups appear intent on lobbying for private advantages which conflict with the public interest, people increasingly want to know how and why influence is wielded.

Questions to answer 

Responsible 100 has developed some introductory questions to help you explore this important issue and your organisation's exposure to it. Please respond with as much relevant information as you can. Our current questions are available via this Google Form.


Definitions

Lobbying’ is the practice of seeking to influence the opinions or decisions of government members, politicians, or public officials. Lobbying also includes programs that seek to influence public opinion. 

A public official is an individual (including advisors to an individual official) with decision-making power, who is elected, appointed, or employed within the executive or legislative branches of power at national, sub-national, or supranational levels; within private bodies performing public functions; and within international public organisations.

Methods of lobbying vary. They can range from individuals sending letters to their elected representatives, to businesses and trade associations making presentations, providing briefing material to decision-makers, networking with decision-makers, and using personal contacts to extend influence and access to decision-makers or government officials.


Exploring The Issue

Government access is an important exercise of democratic freedom, and this usually includes corporate access as well as access for citizens. However, it offends the public when corporate access is used to extend buying influence or otherwise gain private advantages through lobbying activity, especially when it could be detrimental to the public interest.

Many organisations are founded and funded by businesses that operate in a specific industry, such as trade associations, industry trade groups, business associations, sector associations or industry bodies. Such ‘trade associations’ aim to promote the interests of the sector, rather than a specific organisation. However, trade associations may disproportionately represent a few big players in their sector rather than smaller organisations that may have differing interests.

These are similar to trade unions, which also seek to represent the interests of their members. But a trade union is different from a trade association in that it represents the interests of workers, often promoting more social or economic interests for the individuals, such as financial assistance.

Lobbying should be consistent with your organisation’s values, as well as what your organisation stands for, or claims to stand for. When this doesn’t happen, the public can call out lobbying actions as hypocritical. For example, last year, the CEO of Google published a letter along with 200 other CEOs in opposition to a repressive voting law in Georgia. However, Google was soon exposed for funding an organisation that supported this and similar laws, laying bare a disconnect between the values they showed to the public, and the way they truly acted behind closed doors.

History is littered with examples of businesses purporting to support calls for change on some important issue in the public interest, while secretly lobbying for permission to avoid making any real changes that may affect their short-term profitability.

The campaign group InfluenceMap came into being as a result of the phenomenon that the world’s biggest oil companies started to report to the CDP, an initiative to promote detailed disclosure from companies and governments on environmental impacts, while at the same time funding climate change denial propaganda and think tanks. Influence Map now analyses and reports on the gap between what oil majors say, and what they do, when it comes to the transition to a low carbon economy.

Public perception of lobbying is largely cynical. 63% of people polled by the Gallup Poll rated ‘the honesty and ethical standards’ of lobbyists as low or very low. Lobbyists were the worst rated from the list of professions polled. The expectation is that businesses want something in return for their lobbying practices and that there are always secret motives hidden behind their actions.

This public perception isn’t helped by the knowledge of the various methods of indirect lobbying, which can sometimes include schmoozing with lavish hospitality, tickets to concerts and sporting events, and even holidays, such as 2-day conferences in tourist resorts where a 2-week stay is thrown in.

Paid jobs are sometimes offered as well: Owen Paterson, an MP, was hired as a part-time consultant for Randox in 2015 and worked within the government to advocate for certain benefits to Randox, including a contract to produce testing kits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, indirect lobbying can also include donating to campaign groups and funding think tanks. A think tank is a body of experts that provide advice and ideas on political or economic issues. ‘Think tanks’ can be used by lobbyists to access public figures at events.

Think tanks can serve legitimate and beneficial functions such as contributing to the formation of beneficial public policy and offering technical expertise. However, less unscrupulous think tanks have been exposed for offering to write reports with pre-set conclusions for cash, and others are merely fronts to allow corporations or other organisations to promote their interests and access public officials.

Political donations give businesses tremendous power over political decisions. In the United States, ‘the top five donors, alone, account for more than a quarter of all’ independent expenditure-only committee donations. Here in the UK, the Conservative party is heavily reliant on hedge funds and bankers for its funding. It is fair to ask: what are such funders seeking to gain?

One close tie that businesses often have with the government, and that heavily influences lobbying practices, is the ‘revolving door.’ The revolving door refers to the movement of staff between the public and private sector, bringing with them contacts and influence, or between public procurement, regulatory, executive or legislative roles and organisations that are affected by such regulation, legislation, or decisions.

When done conscientiously, these revolving doors enable business and government to better understand each other and bring practical experience to policy-making, with benefits to wider society. However, there is a clear danger that when ‘switching sides’ from, for example, a water ombudsman to the CEO of a water company, insiders are also well placed to secure favours and advantages for themselves and private business interests.

Most lobbying is unregulated in the UK. The Committee on Standards in Public Life assists the Prime Minister in assessing ethical practices in public life and is in charge of conducting inquiries into any inappropriate practices done in the public sector.

This Committee claims that the issue with lobbying sits in the lack of transparency about business interests. Where businesses go wrong is not in the practice of lobbying itself, but rather, in the abuse of such practices.

An example of the lack of regulation from the government, and abuse from business, is the recent leaking of the Uber Files, which reveal that, among other things, Uber utilised a ‘kill switch’ to avoid investigations during police raids, worked closely with French President Emmanuel Macron to pursue their business interests, and attempted to gain closer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin by seeking allies among Russia’s most rich and powerful people.


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