A global lack of transparency

Lack of strong lobbyist registries allows special interests to flourish

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Washington — Determining the influence of industry on legislation in the United States is tough. But tracking influence on an international scale can be a nightmare, as International Consortium of Investigative Journalism members found this year while reporting our Global Climate Change Lobby series.

ICIJ, an arm of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, runs a unique network of 100 journalists in 50 countries. In the run-up to the Copenhagen climate talks, ICIJ fielded an eight-country team of reporters to examine the special interests trying to influence the debate. Reporters interviewed top lobbyists, analyzed industry campaigns and strategy, and tried to obtain government reports on those lobbying on climate change issues around the world. Using computer-assisted reporting techniques, this last effort offered the hardest data but also proved the most frustrating.

The main problem ICIJ found is a simple lack of credible data on lobbying activities. Our investigation focused on eight major economies key to the climate change debate: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, and the United States. In developing countries and nations with weak governments, lobbying registries are almost unheard of. More surprisingly, though, is the lack of lobbying data in industrialized nations with reputations for more robust democratic institutions. Of the economies we examined, we identified only four with public registries of lobbyists: AustraliaCanada, the EU, and the U.S. This widespread lack of lobbying data is problematic at best: it makes the legislative process shadowy and susceptible to the ambitions of special interests, often resulting in policy not beneficial to the general public.

ICIJ and Center for Public Integrity staff downloaded lobbying data and in some cases used a program to “scrape” entire databases from government sites, so our staff could do its own analysis. We then developed stories and infographics based on the data, including exclusive reports on how lobbyists and organizations sought to influence climate change legislation. The stories ran or were cited in hundreds of newspapers and other media worldwide.

A Lack of Data

The idea behind a lobbying registry is that when an organization lobbies a legislative body or an executive agency, they are required to report the activity to a government entity responsible for making that information public. In a perfect world, the lobbying registry would include the name of the lobbying firm, the name of the client (frequently those names would be the same if a company handled lobbying in house), the name of the lobbyists, the specific issue of interest, how much the client spent on lobbying by specific issue, when the lobbying took place, the name of the lobbied party or at least the branch of government or agency name, and a little about the background of the lobbyists involved (most importantly, whether the lobbyist is a former government employee). Also useful would be whether the client is a parent company or subsidiary of another company. And all these data should be available in a format that is practical for independent researchers to download and analyze.

That is the wish list, anyway. The reality is far afield. Even where lobbying registries exist the data systems are usually flawed, some fatally. The European Union, for example, started a lobbying registry in the summer of 2008, but it’s a voluntary system, meaning that any organization wanting to avoid scrutiny can easily do so by simply not reporting their lobbying efforts. The EU system represents only about 20 percent of lobbying activity, according to Erik Wesselius of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation in the EU, a European watchdog organization. “It’s not very effective,” Wesselius said. “That’s been our consistent critique. We want to stay positive, but it’s messy and coverage is really a big problem.” Ultimately, ICIJ staff decided to use the EU registry data in only a limited form because of the issues described by Wesselius.

In Australia, reporting lobbying activity is required, but the registry provides a woefully incomplete picture in that only organizations that hire an outside firm are required to report. All in-house lobbying activity slips through the cracks. This makes it especially difficult to examine the influence of environmental organizations, which often use their own lobbyists. Further weakening the system, firms do not have to report what issue they’re lobbying on, cutting out any attempt at precision journalism. ICIJ’s Australian partners at the Sydney Morning Herald examined the lobbying records of companies that were presumed to have an interest in climate change, but without a reporting requirement, it’s impossible to say with certainty that these corporations actually lobbied on climate change.

Best Systems Needs Work

Even the best systems we found — the U.S. and Canadian lobbying registries — have problems and could learn much from each other.

The Canadian data system is solid in that it notes whether a lobbyist previously worked in government and the amount of money the lobbying company received in subsidies from the government. The registry also indicates whether a company is a parent organization or a subsidiary and how the lobbying organization communicated with government officials, such as by phone or e-mail. The U.S. lobbying registry, operated by the Senate, does not collect any of that information, except for whether a lobbyist formerly worked for the government.

But the Canadian system has serious flaws. The first and most obvious is that the lobbying data is only available in a searchable format online, as opposed to the U.S. system which provides a downloadable XML file — a format that eases the transfer of files among different programs. Having the Canadian data online is nice, but without a working file journalists and researchers who want to conduct anything more than a topical examination of lobbying records have to scrape the data off the lobbying registry site, and that site is, as they would say in Quebec, une désastre.

Additionally, the Canadian registry fails to report how much organizations spent on lobbying, a major omission, or to provide a practical indicator of when the organization lobbied. Yes, they do note when an organization is registered to lobby, but not in a standardized fashion that allows a year by year, or, better yet, quarter by quarter comparison of lobbying activity. Finally, flaws in the Canadian online database inexplicably produced different results from the same search.

In the United States, it’s relatively easy to use lobbying disclosure data to identify those attempting to influence lawmakers. Like the Canadian system, the U.S. registry identifies individual lobbyists, clients, and the lobbying firm. Unlike the Canadian system, the U.S. lobbying registry requires firms to provide an approximate dollar amount spent. Lobbying firms also have to register their lobbying activity quarter by quarter, making quarterly comparisons possible.

Once again, there are problems with the U.S. registry — which fails to provide information on parent companies and subsidiaries and on how lobbyists communicate with government officials. As the Canadians have demonstrated, obtaining such information is not an overly burdensome reporting requirement. And, in fact, such a requirement would reveal much about the influence of individual organizations on specific government policies. Also missing: how much was roughly spent lobbying on each specific issue.

If the U.S. registry included these elements, it would provide a fairly complete template for what other countries can do. But our investigation suggests just how far the world has to go to achieve even a basic level of transparency. In too many capitals, it seems, those in power need convincing that the public actually has a right to know who’s trying to influence their government.