In a democracy, what’s wrong with lobbying?

Why should it be kosher to engage with the leadership of an organisation like Ficci or CII, but not with someone representing a business house?

Lobbying is back in the news. The brouhaha over a global retail giant’s alleged illegal doings in India may have stemmed from the Opposition’s search for yet another stick to beat the government with. But in the process of damning the government, its critics are happily demonising the profession of lobbying.

The suggestion is unequivocal: that the profession is sinister and the objective of those who practise it is often to subvert government and policymaking.
Much of such thinking stems from an inadequate understanding of the role of corporate communications in governance. It needs to be clearly understood that in a democracy there is a clear role for corporates in policymaking. Just as war is too serious a business to be left to generals, so also is policymaking too serious a business to be left to policymakers. To do justice to their job, policymakers require informed inputs from those conversant with the issues at hand. Such influencers would most obviously be former bureaucrats or politicians who have dealt with such issues in their time. The media, including columnists and other commentators, are also policy influencers. So are public policy think-tanks and NGOs, among others. To form informed opinion about issues that affect business, these influencers, in their turn, profit from inputs by corporates. Such inputs are provided by corporate communicators — also called PR people, lobbyists, policy advocates and so on. These corporate communicators may, of course, also directly provide inputs to policymakers.
If this is clearly understood and acknowledged, it just cannot be anybody’s case that no bureaucrat or legislator should ever have anything to do with somebody whose job it is to communicate a corporate perspective on issues that affect business. On the contrary, they should find such perspectives invaluable in decision-making.
There is a clear recognition of this by the government when the finance ministry holds pre-Budget consultations with representatives of trade and industry. Likewise, when government functionaries engage with the leadership of chambers of commerce and other business bodies, it is an acknowledgement of the need to pay heed to corporate perspectives. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Why should it be kosher to engage with the leadership of an organisation like Ficci, CII or Nasscom, but not with someone representing a business house?
As a practitioner of business communications, I am sometimes asked how I could function, given the fact that I was once an editorial page editor in a newspaper. On such occasions, I tell my interlocutors that far from feeling like a fish out of water I find a lot that is similar between the two jobs. As an editorial writer, I marshalled fact and argument to make a compelling case for a point of view. That point of view was called the editorial line or the editor’s position on any given issue. As a policy advocate, representing a corporate client, I still marshal fact and argument to make a compelling case for a particular position. Just as an editorial line is arrived at by an editorial writer in consultation with his editor, so also is a policy advocate’s position arrived at through discussion with his client or his employer.
If there was nothing sinister about the one job, there cannot be anything exceptionable about the other. In fact, I would argue that a leader writer or a columnist is a policy advocate by another name. They are but the obverse and reverse of the same coin.
It should then be clear that the discursive skills of a policy advocate should hardly cause concern to anybody. Problems should arise if he were to resort to unethical means. There is no place for illegal gratification in this business. And, sure, there are bad eggs in policy advocacy. But then absence of ethics among a few practitioners cannot be the reason for damning the profession as a whole.
It has been suggested by some that life would be simpler and cleaner if we were to “regulate lobbying”. To begin with, it must be understood, that in the United States, where the industry is larger than anywhere else in the world, lobbying has the narrow meaning of engaging with lawmakers on specific pieces of legislation, proffering specific points of view and encouraging action based on such positions. Advocacy, on the other hand, includes the entire gamut of activities involved in seeking to influence public policy.
When we talk of regulating, we have to be sure as to what it is that we are seeking to regulate. It may make sense to regulate lobbying as it is understood in the US, or even in Brussels (the home of EU officialdom), but if we seek to regulate advocacy, we would run into rough weather. We may as well, then, seek to regulate the even more omnibus discipline of business communications.
Further, a regulatory mechanism would make sense only if it has teeth. We have with us our sorry experience with another regulatory body in the communications industry. The Press Council of India, a statutory body set up to act as a watchdog of the press, has been described as toothless. Not very long ago, the previous Press Council chairman, a highly regarded retired Supreme Court judge, had expressed concern about the “erosion of values” and said it was time for the government to directly regulate the functioning of the media. That’s a solution far worse than the perceived problem! What press would submit itself to governmental regulation and still call itself free? Ironically, the Press Council’s stated objective is to preserve the freedom of the press and to maintain and improve standards.
A watchdog for lobbying must surely not traverse the same path. It would be better to limit regulation to existing laws.

The writer is founder and chief executive of the consulting firm Moving Finger Communications.

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