The Liam Fox and Adam Werritty saga has absolutely nothing to do with legitimate public affairs practice, but unfortunately it has served to put lobbying firmly back in the media and political spotlight.
Today’s Guardian has an interesting article that analyses the coalition government’s meetings with external representatives in the first 10 months of coming into power. It puts an unfortunate anti-business spin on it â€“ for example stating ‘Ministers held more than 1,500 meetings with corporate representatives’. In fact ministers have met far more frequently with non-corporate organisations, it just that it lumps all companies together, but breaks out trade bodies, think tanks, special interest groups, NGOs and charities into several different groups.
In fact as The Guardian’s own data table shows corporate meetings with ministers are never more than 50% of meetings. It’s not surprising that meetings with business should be frequent as every other sector depends on business to generate the wealth that makes it function. Every single public sector salary, charity salary, trade union salary etc ultimately comes from the private sector through either direct taxation or by far and away the biggest element from the wages it pays its employees which enable them to pay tax, make charitable donations or pay union subscriptions.
However, the balance of meetings for some departments does look rather alarming. HM Treasury and The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) should both be meeting with trade unions far more often. They should be far more proactive in finding ways that unions and employers can work together to help grow the economy.
It’s equally alarming that the Department for Education is having so few meetings with businesses, it’s little wonder that we have employers citing lack of skills as a major problem if we have such a low level of direct engagement by the ministers responsible.
The most worrying one is the Ministry of Defence where an alarming 100 out of 144 meetings were with companies.
As a result of all the media focus the idea of compulsory registration of ‘lobbyists’ is once again on the table. I’m massively in favour of transparency in the public affairs profession, but I’m not convinced that registration could ever work. How do you adequately define exactly what a lobbyist is and what constitutes lobbying activity? Is it to do with what percentage of your time is devoted to public affairs? Does this include ‘monitoring and analysis’, and therefore do we need to include watching the news, reading papers and blogs? Does a chief executive having one meeting with a minister make him/her a lobbyist. How about 10 meetings?
If you’re interested in lobbying transparency in the UK then another interesting resource is the Who’s Lobbying? website that aims to make it far easier to see who is meeting who, than by trawling through individual government department websites.
For those interested in finding out how they can use social media as part of a public affairs strategy I’m running a webinar for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations on Friday, October 21. There is still time to register.