Long‑term, low‑risk, high yield ‑ how lobbying practices need to change

By Charles Pitt

Since the Prime Minister helpfully intimated that lobbying the UK was "the next big scandal waiting to happen" the industry has been under considerable pressure. Public suspicion of the UK's great institutions - the police, the media, Parliament - have created an atmosphere in which the individual players are presumed guilty. There is a sense that at the margins of all of these meetings there is some amorphous and unaccountable presence in the form of the paid lobbyist.

While the reality of political engagement is far more banal, this climate presents significant reputational challenges. It is also leading to a considerable re-think in how organisations can most effectively impress their views on policy makers. The industry has grown since the 1980s. While lobbying operated below the radar in the 1960s the number of agencies and individual consultants has grown exponentially. There are estimated to be some 4,000 lobbyists working in the UK with a ratio of 1 to 4 between in-house and in-consultancy practitioners. Given the wide range of services now offered by even small consultancies, the number of individuals engaged in public affairs in its broadest sense must surely be considerably higher. 

As the profession has expanded the range of organisations engaged in active lobbying has broadened. The former preserve of highly regulated industries such as the tobacco industry, lobbying is now a core business function to all; and some of the slickest professionals are lobbying on behalf of the most revered outfits. A glance at the PR Week awards shows how often it is health charities or international aid NGOs whose political campaigning is setting the standard. It is perhaps unfair that just as "good causes" are making political weather in how they persuade and cajole our elected officials, the profession is seen as operating in the shadows.

Against this backdrop the most forward-thinking organisations are recalibrating the terms on which they engage with policy makers and the timescales under which they are operating. Last minute calls with an impassioned plea to drop a clause in some government bill or rethink a local council planning decision is rightly seen as too risky - if you can influence an elected official that readily (and visibly) there is something awry.

The alternative model which is emerging is instead forcing businesses to look ahead three or four years and to engage with policy makers at a far earlier stage. The most thoughtful organisations are learning to put forward policy proposals of their own years before they are likely to be adopted. This approach stands a far better chance of having an impact on emerging government thinking. It is no coincidence that the boom in think tanks has benefited from increased levels of corporate sponsorship. For a CEO the ambition is no longer to be on the golf course with the Prime Minister but to be regarded as a thought leader by his brightest policy advisers.

Overt and aggressive lobbying is a risky business for all involved. But standing apart while your competitors impress the political elite with their foresight and Thought Leadership may be even more dangerous in the long term than calling in shady favours from government ministers.  

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