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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Lobbying, a democratic essential

Lobbying, as a practice, attracts a very negative response that excludes the reality of how public policy evolves in a democratic country. This misperception is the product of the opaque manner with which the profession operates and because lobbying attracts attention only in the light of contentious issues and not when positive outcomes are achieved. In India, the reaction is perhaps justified given the history of misuse of power and the abuse of a system involving a variety of influential people. Yet, these are exceptions, even if this is all that gets amplified in the name of lobbying.

What must be understood is that governments, parliamentarians or even the media do not function in isolation from the people at large. Nor are they custodians of all knowledge or what people need or how a country thinks. It is with inputs from citizen’s groups such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), think tanks, consumer interest societies and industry chambers and associations that debate and discussion translates into policy. It is worth noting that these groups employ a lobbyist or lobby on their own. Such things don’t happen in a vacuum.

Internationally, lobbying is said to date back to 1215 when King John of England allowed people to petition him on any violation of rights. The US interpreted this as the right to be heard.

According to European Public Affairs Consultancies’ Association (EPACA) guidelines (adopted by the Public Relations Consultants Association of India, or PRCAI), lobbying has two primary aspects—“a society that does not have autocratic decision makers must use a group process to make political decisions," and “lobbying as an aspect of legislative process". Yet, since the good results of lobbying were not visible to the public and tainted stuff was all that made news, the European Union (EU) created a register where interest representation had to be recorded, with EPACA carrying out monitoring and self regulating.

In the mid-1990s, the big concern in the US was that of government officials switching roles to represent corporations. They had easier access to the system besides a wealth of information that citizens would not have had. The register ensured that every representation was recorded and failure to do so within specified time led to hefty fines.

With these structures, EU and the US built a good-sized industry with government affairs and public affairs experts. There are more than 34,000 lobbyists in the US. In EU, some 3,000 interest groups and 300-odd companies are involved in public affairs and over 100 management companies work in this space, employing some 15,000 persons.

In India, estimates suggest there are more than 20 large- to mid-sized public relations firms offering public affairs expertise. There are also a few stand-alone government affairs consultancies following structured processes. The number of single-man agents, think tanks, NGOs and in-house practitioners is hard to count.

Even with this size and importance of work what is in place are largely guidelines of PRCAI that are based on EPACA norms and US laws. These are followed by a handful of participants.

Yet there is a structure. Some firms follow the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and others state their own codes of governance that disallow the use of any form of influence other than dialogue, discussion and representation. The services offered to clients often fall under government affairs, advocacy, public affairs or even multi-constituency engagement.

With this spirit, the interest of their clients then translates into direct engagement, platform creation or association (working with chambers or industry associations), media relations and, importantly, the use of research and global examples related to the evolution of policies in question in different societies. There are registers at every government office one signs but there is an absence of declaration or identification of purpose or profession. Hence, there is a sense of anonymity.

Yet, with the help of lobbying, India has seen significant changes in policy, consumption and general evolution ranging from food safety laws, intellectual property, the opening up of insurance, banking, aviation and many other sectors, reduction of duties, raising of voices for farmers and human rights, and changes in laws and individual taxation, to give a few examples.

As EPACA suggests, a democracy must recognize lobbying regardless of whether it is carried out by individual citizens or companies, think tanks, governments and other groups. To realize the positive potential of this activity, there is a definite need to recognize this profession so that distinctions between fixing, preferential treatment or crony capitalism are clear.

Further, the association—PRCAI—needs to be strengthened. Participants must sign the dotted line and agree not to make any payment in cash or in kind, or barter so as to influence regulation. And when it comes to public (taxpayers) money, the need to exercise greater caution has been underlined by PRCAI and this must be committed to by one and all.

While the onus lies on the lobbying industry, its existence has more to do with the ethos of a democracy and the belief of plurality and evolution. The industry with its skills perhaps needs to develop a strategy to push forward, acquire greater visibility and be held accountable. It needs to work with government, politicians and the media in reaching what is a balance between visibility and confidentiality. Else, what is not seen or known will always be feared and speculated about.

Sharif D. Rangnekar is president of public relations consultants association of India and the chief executive officer of Integral PR.

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Updated: 24 Dec 2012, 06:52 PM IST
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