For episode 68 we welcome as our guest Peter van Keulen, a prominent lobbyist at the firm Public Matters. He talks about trust as a fundamental aspect of lobbying, and the importance to establish and maintain it through transparency, integrity, and access. He discusses the essential elements for building trust in lobbying, namely integrity, and access. Integrity is demonstrated through a code of conduct that outlines how lobbyists protect their client’s interests and how they act toward the people they seek to influence. Access is the ability to interact with decision-makers due to relationships built over time. While knowing decision-makers does not guarantee success, it can be useful.
In the United States, lobbyists must register and disclose certain information about their activities under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. In Europe, regulations have been introduced, but they vary by member state, and The Netherlands has been slow to regulate lobbying. The European Commission has rules in place that prohibit former commissioners or high-level professionals from acting as lobbyists for a specific party for a specific period after leaving their position.
However, there are still stereotypes and misconceptions about lobbying that can impact the perception of the profession as a whole. When people view lobbyists as only representing big corporations or having questionable motives, it can be challenging to establish trust. That’s why it is crucial to educate the public and policymakers about the diversity of actors involved in lobbying and how it operates to foster trust and create a more positive image of the profession.
Ultimately, building trust is an ongoing process that requires open and honest communication and a commitment to ethical practices. NGOs, governments, and municipalities also engage in lobbying activities, and the growth of lobbying activities in the Netherlands is at the municipalities and provincial decision-making levels. By promoting transparency, integrity, and access, lobbyists can build and maintain trust with decision-makers and the public.
I don’t want to lose myself in definitions. And many people look in a different way on what lobbying is, what public affairs is and what stakeholder engagement is, because that is the three levels we distinguish in our profession. I distinguish three circles, basically and lobbying for me is in the heart of the definition, lobbying being the profession of influencing elected officials, politicians, members of Parliament, municipality councils or whatever. So that’s the inner circle of definition that is lobbying, reaching out and influencing politicians. Then the second circle around lobbying is the public affairs circle in which you try and influence decision-makers like civil servants working at ministries or in the province or wherever. And then the third circle covering lobbying and public affairs. That is what we call stakeholder engagement, where you indirectly try to influence scientists or NGOs or legislators and trying to convince them of a specific position with which they influence civil servants and or politicians
Are only companies lobbying?
(…) people think that only companies with a lot of money can influence politicians, and the contrary is the case. You see a lot of competition between lobbyists from companies, yes, but also from NGOs in the environmental industry or governments. The biggest growth of lobbyists in the Netherlands was from lobbyists on the municipality or regional decision-making level. So governments, municipalities or province influencing members of the House of Representatives, that’s where the biggest growth has been. And it sounds a little bit strange, but for me it’s an confirmation that lobbying or public affairs is a real profession and you need experts to do so. And that is what municipalities saw themselves as well. And also on the European level, where you saw the recent case where Germany, the German government is now lobbying against specific regulation on the Fuel Directive, where the European Commission is electrifying cars within ten or to 15 years. And the German government is now lobbying against that regulation. And also that is perceived as lobbying. It’s a bothering thing for me that only multinationals or consultants are perceived as they have money so they can be a lobbyist and I think that is something that the professional organization should own and explain more on what lobbyists do and that there’s a high variety of lobbyists”.
On Lobbying and Trust
there are two crucial cornerstones that define the relationship between lobbying and trust. On the one hand, that is the activity of lobbying, during which an exchange of information takes place between stakeholders and the recipient of this information needs to be able to have full trust in, for example, the quality of information. The second cornerstone that defines the trust between lobbying and trust is related to the, let’s say, the voice and face of the information that is exchanged. That is the person of the lobbyist, as sender, he or she should be trusted as source of that information. To me, this trust in the personal relationship is even more important than the information itself relating to transparency and ethical practices, to me they are the means that define the context of trust. So being transparent, a lobbyist can demonstrate that he or she has nothing to hide and is committed to acting in the best interests of all stakeholders and this explicitly includes the common and societal interest and not self-interest. And doing so ethically based on, for example, a code of conduct, the recipient can hold the lobbyist accountable for the way he or she operates. And let’s be clear, becoming and maintaining a trusted influencer is an ongoing process to me that takes months or sometimes even years, it requires an ongoing effort and investment and also requires to be available for a stakeholder when the information exchange is not directly related to self-interest. So trust plays, to me, a critical role in successful lobbying.