The word ‘lobbying’ has a very negative connotation, doesn’t it? You hear that a company lobbies government, and you think that it’s somehow persuading the government to do something that’s against the public interest but just in the interest of the shareholders. It’s a popular conception and I think the public are right to be suspicious of the relationship between companies and government, companies and regulators, but they’re wrong in the way they direct their suspicions.
You see, I think that lobbying in the way that most people picture it is probably not very effective. If you’re lobbied by somebody, you’re very aware you’re being lobbied by them and you take everything they say with a pinch of salt. It’s not about wining and dining and schmoozing politicians, ministers to get your way or, at worst, pushing an envelope of cash their way in order to persuade them to give you what you want. I’m sure some of that goes on; I just doubt that, in general, it’s very effective.
So why then should people have some suspicions of the relations between companies, governments and regulators? Well, forget the word ‘lobbying’. It’s the word ‘capture’ that captures it. It’s that companies capture their regulators and their political masters. What they do is they find themselves sharing the same view of the issue. Now this isn’t a conspiracy, it’s not about brown envelopes or bribes or any of those kinds of things. It’s that if you’re an official, and you’re looking after a particular sector, you’ll learn all about it. If you’re a regulator, regulating buses, well what will you do, you’ll read about buses, you’ll learn what bus companies do. You’ll read papers on bus systems and bus delivery, and in no time you’ll be thinking like a bus company.
Well, what does that mean? It means that when you ask a question, you’ll frame the issue in the way that a bus company would and a lot of the time you’ll come up with the answer that a bus company would. It’s not deliberate, it’s not conspiratorial, it’s just the way these things happen when diligent officials go about their business and learn what they’re meant to be up to. But it’s a problem because it can mean that in the very premises that these officials are using to frame their arguments, they’re coming up with the arguments and the answers that suit the companies they’re meant to be regulating at arms length.
So, if you want to worry about the relation between companies and governments, take your eye a little bit off the restaurants and wine bars that they share together and think more about the mindset that they share.
That’s my opinion. You can join the debate with The Open University.