Life for LobbyLens?

This is a guest post from Julia Thornton an occasional commenter on Troppo.

Nicholas Gruen’s Government 2.0 taskforce left us a treasure trove of a report, but when the nerds, hackers and policy wonks had gone home, in amongst the half eaten pizza and empty Coke bottles there was left behind, forlorn and deserted, a little piece of software with Canberra game changing possibilities, called “LobbyLens”. (See link below)

For the last few weeks in Canberra it’s been a lobbyfest, and things don’t look like changing any time soon. Rob Oakeshott has remarked that he has been deluged by thousands of emails a day. People were even turning to that old technology, the fax, in order to circumvent a clogged email system and get their message through. Who knows what pressures the independents have been subject to behind closed doors? There are now six people whose vote could change the direction of Australian politics. It’s important to know who has their ear.

As a counter to conflicts of interest and in support of the general principle that in a democracy, access to the powerful should at least be visible, even if it is not as it would be ideally, scrupulously equal, John Faulkner set up the Lobbyists Register and the Lobbyists Code of Conduct.

While a laudable attempt to “use sunlight as a disinfectant”, the register has from its inception had problems:

  • The register shows lobbyists but not who, precisely, is lobbied. This makes it difficult to ascertain the relationship or the interests that may be being served.
  • The definition of a lobbyist is narrow. It does not cover “in house” lobbyists who work for a firm which is itself a direct lobbyist. It covers only those lobbying firms which work on behalf of a client company.
  • The “Lobbyee” is at present defined as a “government representative” – a Minister, Parliamentary secretary or staffer or public servants. In other words only the incumbent government and its governing apparatus are subject to scrutiny. As Bernard Keane pointed out on Crikey on Thursday last, “there’s no requirement for someone lobbying an independent MP or a Coalition MP to be on the Lobbyist Register or abide by the code of conduct.”
  • Registration of lobbyists is not timely. The register allows up to three months to register a lobbyist from the time of making representation. There is no reason, especially in an online world, why registration should not be at the time of the event and continuously updated.
  • On the whole it would be preferable to register lobbying activity rather than lobbyists, as this would avert the singling out of one group of lobbyists over another. Registering lobbying activity helps get rid of the various exemptions for charities, religious organisations and accountancy firms and would also better define the interests and relationships served via the activity, preventing amongst other things, “astroturfing” – faking grassroots support.
  • Registering activity rather than people makes timely notification make even more sense. Online registration of each instance of lobbying activity could occur almost exactly at the time of the activity itself.
  • At present some forms of public interest data are protected by copyright or licensing arrangements, another transparency shortcoming which ought to be reformed. For instance agencies have a publishing obligation for grants but grant awards and expenditure are not part of the Lobbyist Register and the data is not open licensed. This prevents the data being reused or reworked by third party watchdog organisations and analysts. See for instance the copyright on any information on the website of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. http://www.dpmc.gov.au/copyright.cfm. Information on the ASIC Gazette and the Public Service Gazette is not openly licensed, information which could be used to augment the lobbyists register.
  • It would help to have a five year ban on former ministers and government representatives to prevent them from lobbying for their areas of former responsibility as per Canada. (This should probably be extended to a ban on or working in these areas as there is nothing to prevent passing on information in house to another lobbyist)
  • A wider net would be cast by a cap on spending by private and non government organisations on that indirect form of lobbying – advertising. This also has the effect of levelling the playing field for small community organisations or those lobbying, unpaid, for social justice – disability support, for instance. And it removes the “arms race” incentive for government political advertising as occurred before the election when Wayne Swan declared the mining advertisements some sort of national emergency which warranted dropping previous government advertising spending constraints.

LobbyLens, that little piece of software left behind, cannot rectify the shortcomings of the Lobbyist Register and Code of Conduct, but it can use the power of data aggregation to shine a lot more light than is presently possible. The prototype that was built for the Government 2.0 hackday uses 12 publicly available databases and Geospatial Visualisation to compress an awful lot of information into an easy to use interface. “Geospatial Visualisation” means that if you click on a node – say the name of a ministry or company – you can have a lot of fun just by watching the diagram rearrange itself around that node, but it also means you can see the information which is important to you without the clutter of everything else. You can see not only who is connected to whom, but in many cases the value of the donation or contract that forms the financial basis of the connection.

At present the prototype is just that, so if you go to the website link at the end of this post, do not expect too much of it.

How about making it more substantial and interactive? Well that might be happening.

Margaret Simons, freelance journalist, board member of Crikey and driving force behind the Swinburne University Public Interest Journalism Foundation has picked it out of its corner amongst the old pizza boxes. She has taken on revamping it and making it publicly available through the Public Interest Journalism Foundation.

Potential enhancements include

  • Adding more existing databases which collect information on companies and government or politicians actions.
  • Adding a wiki or other form of public interaction, so that anyone with a tip or further information could add an entry. Scuttlebutt vetting and removal would be the job of the PJIF, particularly as “ethical” journalists should be prepared to validate tips from the public.
  • Integrating online news sources.
  • Displaying results not just of lobbying relationships but as a network of inter-relationships of fiscal, legal, or political nature.
  • Providing an extra analytic function that could automatically identify and alert to extraordinary or deviant relationships or behaviour

In other words this could become an all round “Public Interest Lens”

As is ever the way with these things the main impediment to realisation is money – it needs about $148,000.00 to get it going, although this can be broken into three stages. A detailed development plan and budget is available through Margaret Simons, and PJIF has tax deductable donation status. But also needed are some good ideas and contacts to assist fundraising.

If you are interested in driving this project further, Margaret Simons can be contacted at Margaret AT margaretsimons with the rest of her email being ‘com.au’.

LobbyLens in its present form can be found here and the story of its hatching/hacking here.

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Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

interesting. The main thing I would conclude for this is that what the writer thinks is really important is the costs and benefits for the individual actors (journos, parliamentarians, observers) and that intentions and visions are regarded as hot air. Hence, if you want to make a difference, you have to produce an intermediary good (LobbyLens) that reduces the search costs of finding out about lobby-activities for the other actors in the hope that their own self-interest will then be served by pursuing more and better lobby monitoring activities. Its a fairly cynical view of the process of politics and media, but probably quite accurate.

The second main thing I take from the above is a fairly naive belief in the ability to measure and monitor. It clearly is the belief-du-jour that you can define criteria, design measurement tools, force the actors to abide by the rules, and then achieve great outcomes from the aggregation of the data. This is first and foremost a lobby-activity in itself (i.e. a call for more resources to the monitors and gatherers), but is also displaying more belief in the ability of a bureaucracy to measure things than I think is warranted.

On the whole I suspect that any endeavour to uncover the machinery of lobbying is always going to be in a complexity race because openness greatly diminishes the effectiveness of lobbying. Hence you’re in a race against money, a race that will itself create more and more complexity and ever more hidden ways in which the money makes it way from the person who wants to influence to the person with the power. Any gimmick that is effective in the short run will become the thing that is circumvented the next round. This is not to say that one should give up the race, but rather one should be realistic about what the race is: the race is entered to keep up the social norm that lobbying is frowned upon and hence to minimize the importance of lobbying. The race is not really entered with an expectation of winning, or ‘disinfecting’.

Julia
Julia
11 years ago

Paul,
I too have some sympathy with what you are saying, especially with your implication that you cannot turn a quality (values and intentions) into a quantity. However the implementation of one method of monitoring, does not imply the absence of other methods for inducing general motivations for good, ethical and democratic behaviour. I believe John Cain paid for all his own postage stamps the whole time he was in office. This is a profoundly effective way to set standards, but difficult for anyone but an actual Premier to implement.

Nicholas is right. LobbyLens is but one of a range of possible strategies which could complement each other. In particular, caps on donations and on political advertising by both Parliamentarians and parties and by private and non government organisations might help to slow the arms race, although as long as money buys influence, it is unlikely to stop it.

In any case, stopping lobbying is not a useful thing to do. A better goal is making it possible for smaller groups and groups that do not earn their income from the interest they represent to be on a more equal lobbying footing so that more voices are heard and political decision-making is not dominated by narrow sectional interests.

The most interesting effect of LobbyLens, I think is a potential inversion of the usual direction of monitoring. Paul, you take it that LL would mean the polity will be monitoring the politicians, which would be true, but it’s a two way mirror. A conversation I had with a currently sitting State politician suggested that politicians themselves might find it very useful to have a source of aggregate data on the background and networks of the lobbyists and representatives lobbying them. This would give them the means to ensure their intentions and visions are not hot air, and can be, with help and support, effectively implemented.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
11 years ago

While a list of lobbying activities is unlikely to be useful – it is no surprise that people affected by government activity try to influence the political process – it is not especially harmful, other than wasting time.

What is worrying are proposals to ‘equalise’ the political process, which inevitably mean that those who are currently in power get to decide how much ‘influence’ their opponents are allowed to have.

I find it staggering that these ideas are being taken seriously. So far as I can see the union movement is the only significant interest group on the public record which opposes them.

They are crystal clear about what this would have meant for them in the recent past. The Howard government would have passed one law to screw the union movement, and another to restrict their political activity on the grounds that they are too powerful. There are Liberal politicians on the record as supporting controls on union spending, and these issues motivated their 2006 changes to electoral law to force increased disclosure on the unions.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
11 years ago

Nick – Yes, they were. That’s the point. The unions would be limited in their capacity to fight back against laws like WorkChoices. In the NSW version, the unions would be limited both in how much they could donate to political parties and how much they could spend campaigning in their own right.

Julia
Julia
11 years ago

Andrew,
The NSW Labor government earlier this month decided to cap donations and included Union donations in the mix. (See the Australian’s report here and the Hansard report here).
Anyway, I am not proposing “equalising the political process”, I am proposing a reduction of the unequal access to our political representatives. The idea of representation in a democracy is representation of all of us, which is why donation caps have been on the agenda for a long time. The Howard government just lifted the ceiling really high.
The bill which the last Federal Labor government introduced (and which I think failed on Senator Fielding’s vote) proposed reducing the size of the cap, and expanding the number of groups covered (See here for the Parliamentary Library digest)
There is a proposal by Ludwig, made before the last election for “Possible Reforms to Lobbying Code of Conduct and the Register of Lobbyists”. The discussion paper which also canvasses extensions to groups covered and limits on donations (and can be found here). If you’re quick, submissions close tomorrow.

I am prepared to concede that at least in respect of the current Minister, you appear to be right. Gary Gray gave a really depressing interview on the ABC’s National Interest program on Sunday in which he appeared unable to distinguish party interest from transparency, accountability and electoral reform.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
11 years ago

It’s the principle of the government controlling the activism of its opponents – not picking winners but picking losers. Do you really trust them to do this fairly?

Let me pick more provocative examples. Say the government thinks Jews are far too rich and influential, being statistically over-represented in every elite. It decides it wants to pass laws against them. There are too few Jewish people ever to vote it down on their own, but they do have he money to finance a campaign to persuade other people to vote it down.

On your position, they would not be allowed to do so.

The laws will have also have very differential effects based on where an issue is in its cycle. For issues already familiar to the public, a modest campaign plus media stunts (and this law will encourage stunts for legal media over paid campaigns) may be enough to make it salient and mobilise existing views. But for unfamiliar issues it will take a lot more to get people to understand what is at stake.

Tel
Tel
11 years ago

The Minerals Council of Australia just advertised directly to the voters when campaigning against the RSPT, for that matter most of the union money in the “Your RIghts at Work” campaign just got dumped straight into advertising. In both cases, the voters knew exactly who was behind the campaigns and in both cases it was blindingly obvious why they were doing it (i.e. self interest).

Are we seriously proposing that private groups should not be allowed to present their viewpoint to the general public?

By the way, if you believe Andrew Forrest, the revamped RSPT (i.e. the MRRT) actually has the support of the big miners, primarily because it reduces their competition and protects them from newcomers, in return for tax paid (the typical corporatist value proposition). But this is drifting away from lobbying and more towards regular negotiation of a deal. It just happens that the deal is between business money on one side and government policy on the other.

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with such a deal: the public vote for their representatives, and those representatives negotiate in the public interest. In practice the money generally wins.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
11 years ago

Nick – Tel is supporting my case. The proposals go way beyond donations to control advertising spending more broadly. You suggest it above, it is actively being considered in NSW, it has been supported by federal Liberal MPs in the past, and I think the Greens will support it federally too. If you restrict the capacity of political parties they will not let a situation be created where third parties can outspend them. The trouble is that every new rule forces displacement of political activity into free space, and the regulators follow. In the end you finish with an only partially free political system. The cure is far worse than the disease.

The point is that you are trusting those in power to control political activism, while I am saying that power should stay fully in the civil society.

Julia
Julia
11 years ago

Andrew,

You said, “If you restrict the capacity of political parties they will not let a situation be created where third parties can outspend them. ” which I completely agree with. The issue is what to do about it. You also said, “The trouble is that every new rule forces displacement of political activity into free space, and the regulators follow” which is a point you could make about any form of regulation that stops people doing things that advantage them.

I spent a number of years as a kindergarten teacher and know first hand that if you just say “No” to small children, the behaviour just leaks around the barriers. The solution for small children (and adults) is to create preferred avenues of activity as well as preventing the ones you don’t like.

Some of this I think might come down to a more nuanced idea of what people actually get out of lobbying. At the moment the rationale for creating an impression of strength and vote changing capacity on the side of lobbyists is because the assumption is that that is what it takes to make a politician listen. Its speculation on my part, but perhaps other avenues of access of the sort suggested by deliberative democracy people might offer other, better forms of access. Whether this specifically works or not, the general principle of creating other less expensive, less power based models of access is I think worth entertaining.

The second part of the equation is what politicians themselves get out of being lobbied. My impression is that very little of it is actually a direct quid pro quo relationship. Instead I think lobbyists help politicians with what could be loosely called sense-making. In a time poor, information rich environment, you need people who can sort out with credibility what other people “really” want and what strategies they might use on you, so that you can respond appropriately. As I understand it, that’s what good lobbyists do. They provide politicians with an understanding of the operating environment and with policy solutions. You do not need advertising to do this, but you do need access. Again the “solution” I think comes down to a question what alternative forms of access can be crafted so as when undesirable behaviour is circumvented, there is an acceptable (democratic, more level playing field) way to achieve ones ends.

dewalt
dewalt
11 years ago

OK so the big miners would be hamstrung in fighting the mining tax and the big unions would be hamstrung in protecting their own monopolies.

I’m looking for the downside.

Ummmmmm one of them has a point and they should be able to inform the public. The mining industry was successful in alerting the public of a damaging tax.

Would you also restrict government advertising?

dewalt
dewalt
11 years ago

Why do you say it was a damaging tax?

For lots of rational economic reasons.

If it was a damaging tax why did the Henry Review propose it?

Surely you’re not serious in asking this question.

And yes, I’d love to have much greater restrictions on Government political advertising. So did the ALP, until they were signing the cheques. Sad.

So you’d only restrict government advertising but not eliminate it and you would eliminate essentially any opposition to the government on the airwaves or print.

Excuse me if I think you’re attempting to recreate Venezuela: that equatorial liberal paradise.

Where do you get these ideas?