The lobby register: a necessary transparency gain at the right time?

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As of January 1, 2022, new transparency rules for political lobbying will apply in Germany: The lobby register of the German Bundestag, which can be viewed online by anyone, will henceforth record the lobbyists of various organizations, companies, consulting providers and associations seeking contact with members of the German Bundestag or the German government.

As of today – mid-April – more than 4,000 natural or legal persons as well as networks and partnerships are registered in the lobby register as active lobbyists. In total, the lobby register contains more than 25,000 persons who are authorized to represent interests vis-à-vis political actors.

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The lobby register is a database in which lobbyists must register if they wish to contact specific political actors. In addition, the financial expenditures for the respective interest representation must be stated in the register. An additional code of conduct describes rules to ensure openness, transparency, honesty and integrity.

Germany is thus taking a step that other member states of the European Union, such as France or Ireland, took some time ago. They all rely on mandatory registration with a code of conduct, as well as sanctions against any violations. Slovenia and Austria have also been able to push through similar efforts.

The law was already passed by the German Bundestag last year. In 2020, the draft bill of the CDU/CSU and SPD parliamentary groups stated that the “public’s unease” about the influence of interest groups on politics was increasing. The public perceives interest representation “primarily [as] illegitimate attempts by particular interest organizations to exert influence”, and trust in politics is dwindling.

The introduction of the lobby register was a good and overdue step

From the perspective of democratic theory, it can hardly be disputed that citizens, as sovereigns, have a right to understand how political decisions are made. The suspicion that structures exist that can systematically and covertly influence political decisions outside of democratic elections is reason enough for greater transparency.

This is a variant of the so-called publicity concept. According to this, only that which does not need to shy away from the light of publicity can be legitimate. Moreover, comprehensive transparency in this sense not only fulfills a legitimate need for information on the part of citizens. It can also have an advance effect. In other words, it can lead to the refraining of illegitimate practices. From the perspective of citizens, the increase in transparency is therefore clearly to be welcomed.

From the perspective of those who are involved in political decision-making in the broader sense – in addition to the legislative and executive branches, these include associations, NGOs, companies, trade unions, churches, academia and public affairs consultancies – there are also very good reasons for increasing transparency. We firmly believe that every contribution to citizens’ trust in political institutions, actors and processes is valuable.

The democratic rule of law is the foundation for peace and prosperity. In recent years, we have had to learn in many places at home and abroad that it is not unchallenged. It can only be preserved if we succeed in maintaining trust and fundamental agreement on the design of democratic processes.

How should the transparency register be assessed from the perspective of a public affairs consultancy? We believe that more transparency is not a threat to our industry, but an important step forward. In our work with clients, we often explain what their stakeholders expect of them – for example, what expectations there are of energy companies in terms of climate protection.

We are convinced that the success and continued existence of companies and even entire industries can only be ensured if they are issued a “license to operate” by politicians and society. The same applies to the public affairs sector. Meeting the public’s expectations of transparency is therefore not only the right thing to do, but also pragmatic and wise.

In observing the political discourse and in exchanges with our clients, we have actually always found it unconvincing to speak out against any government regulation with a blanket reference to bureaucratic effort. However, the implementation of the Lobby Register Act means a really very large effort for public affairs consultancies. We have clearly experienced this “bureaucratic pain” first hand. And yet we believe: More transparency is the right thing to do, and the implementation effort is a necessary and excellent investment.

The effect of the lobby register and its limits

But how effective will the transparency register be? Will it lead to citizens being able to get a better picture of political processes and gain additional trust? The answer must be a clear “no.” Because there are arguments in both directions.

What are the arguments in favor of effectiveness? First, information on financial resources and personnel expenditure are important cornerstones of political communication. Second, the murmurings about “hidden machinations of highly paid lobbyists”, which are due to the previous lack of transparency and can often be read in this or similar terms, should become a thing of the past if the information is carefully reported.

Even a glance at the lobby register shows the enormous range of highly specialized lobbyists listed here. This fact points – thirdly – to an important function of interest representation in a complex and differentiated society: state actors cannot do without the expertise provided by interest representatives if they want to make well-founded decisions. It is important that the integrity of the political decision-making process is maintained in the process: one of the most important requirements for the behavior and resourcing of state actors.

Fourth, the register shows that the biggest lobbyists in particular do not act in a particularly secretive manner, but are often well-known associations that do not keep quiet about their intentions and initiatives.

All of this can help demystify the public perception of political lobbying, making it more tangible and understandable. To put it a little more broadly and theoretically: In the old Bonn Republic, politics was still done corporatistically. When the state, unions and business associations got together and agreed, a decision was already considered legitimate. But those days are over. They have been replaced by a pluralistic political landscape in which many more actors are involved in shaping political opinion – whether it’s “just” an individual citizen posting a tweet, a company writing a statement, or an NGO commissioning an expert opinion.

This new diversity also necessitates a new transparency. The transparency register makes a valuable contribution to this. Moreover, it can also help to communicate the shift toward pluralism and counteract the false – corporatist – scandalization of “particular interests.

But again, too much hope should not be associated with the register. For one thing, lack of trust in political processes has very different causes – including those that relate not to the political process but to its outcomes. For example, voter turnout and trust in politics correlate with specific socioeconomic parameters.

Moreover, trust is occasionally shaken by scandals that do not only stem from the misconduct of political lobbyists. Recent masking and plagiarism scandals are worth mentioning here, as is the case that paved the way for the lobby register in the first place: the Augustus Intelligence affair involving the member of parliament Philipp Amthor.

And finally, there is still room for improvement in areas where the register can have a positive impact. For example, it has so far only covered the representation of interests vis-à-vis a relatively small circle of exposed political decision-makers. Contact with the working level of federal ministries, for example, is not yet recorded, but it is undeniably an important part of political opinion-forming. Moreover, the register largely operates in a master data world. In concrete terms, this means that the traceability of decision-making processes is not significantly increased.

Finally, there are considerable uncertainties in the definition and delimitation of the obligatory data, which is likely to make it just as difficult for actors to proceed uniformly as it is to interpret the data correctly.

Interim conclusion: The introduction of the lobby register was overdue from a democratic theory perspective. It will contribute to a better understanding of and trust in the complex political processes. At the same time, there is potential for optimization – and it is clear, moreover, that a lobby register can only be a single element within the framework of a strong political culture.

Rules and culture for a strong democracy

In their 2021 coalition agreement, the SPD, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen and the FDP agreed to sharpen the register during the legislative period. We believe this is the right way to go – and in this context we expect in particular the inclusion of the working level of ministries and stronger documentation of legislative processes (“legislative footprint”).

We hope that this will make a further contribution to the culture of democracy and the rule of law, and that understanding of and trust in decision-making processes will deepen. Because that is exactly what they deserve!

 

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  • Thies Clausen

    Dr. Thies Claussen is Partner and Head of Corporate & Public Affairs at FleishmanHillard Germany. Over the past ten years, Thies has worked in various roles in energy policy in Berlin. Among other things, he has served as Head of...

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  • Hark Moeller

    Hark Moeller joined FleishmanHillard’s Corporate & Public Affairs team as an Assistant Account Executive in September 2021. His substantive focus is on energy and climate, as well as financial policy. Hark gained his first practical experience through internships at a...

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