Who’s afraid of lobbying?

Lobbying is an important and indispensable part of the democratic process, as it provides policy makers with information and expert opinions on complex issues on the basis of which they can make quality decisions in the public interest. Nevertheless, research shows that lobbying in Slovenia is perceived as a very negative phenomenon, which is the result of a broader distrust in political parties, public institutions and the rule of law.

As lobbying has a major and important impact on decision-making at various levels, it is accompanied by the risk of corruption and other illegal practices that can further undermine the public trust in this activity. In the light of this, it is important for this area to be properly regulated, while the self-regulation of those who practice lobbying and the integrity of those who are the target of lobbying play a key role.

History of legal regulation of lobbying in Slovenia

Lobbying is not only a legitimate activity, it is also a legally guaranteed right. In Slovenia, it is indirectly enabled by the Constitution with some other constitutionally guaranteed rights, such as the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of assembly and association, the right to participate in public affairs, and the right to petition and other initiatives of general interest.

The first public debates in our country on the regulation of this field began in the early 1990s. At the initiative of the National Assembly, a special working group drafted the Lobbying Act in 1997 and submitted it for consideration a year later. The legislative proposal governed lobbying processes and defined the rights and duties of lobbyists and their target audience. There was no true political will to adopt it at the time, so it was re-submitted in 2003, but it was not adopted once again.

We then got the Integrity and Prevention of Corruption Act (ZIntPK; Zakon o integriteti in preprečevanju korupcije), which comprehensively regulates lobbying and places our country among the most advanced in the world. Nevertheless, the question arises as to whether the placement of lobbying in a law primarily covering integrity and corruption is appropriate for regulating this area. The mere naming of the law makes many think that lobbying and corruption go hand in hand. The law does place the control of lobbying at the forefront, defining it as any non-public contact of lobbyists with their target audience in order to influence the decision-making of state and local authorities and holders of public authority in the interest, name or account of a particular interest organization.

It’s interesting that the Act recognizes two categories of lobbyists – the professional lobbyists, who must register with the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption of the Republic of Slovenia to perform their activities and represent the interests of any legal entity, and non-professional lobbyists who don’t need to register and can represent the interests of the legal entity they have an employment relationship concluded with, or are its legal or appointed representative. Such categorization is unique in the European Union and causes weaker control, so it is certainly not the most appropriate one in terms of ensuring transparency of lobbying contacts.

Self-regulation and integrity

Equally important as the normative regulation of this field is the self-regulation of lobbyists through statutes and codes of conduct. The first attempts at self-regulation date back to 1994, when the Section for Lobbying was established at the Public Relations Society of Slovenia, also adopting the Code of Professional Lobbyists. In 2010, the Slovenian Lobbyists Association was founded on the basis of the Integrity and Prevention of Corruption Act, later renamed the Slovenian Association of Lobbyists, which outlined some of the key requirements in its code of conduct that lobbyists must fulfil in their work: honesty and integrity, compliance with legislation, regulations and other rules, professionalism, proper handling of conflicts of interest, diligence and effort, transparency, confidentiality, financial integrity and ongoing concern for education.

If professional lobbyists have the proper self-regulation mechanisms in place, it’s completely different regarding non-professional lobbyists. Despite the lack of necessary mechanisms, self-regulatory and ethical lobbying initiatives by private sector companies, associations of the profession and interest groups are minimal, leading to a number of undesirable practices that are often contrary to law.

Legal and legitimate action is, of course, expected of the lobbyists’ target audience too. This is primarily about ensuring the integrity, that is the expected performance and responsibility of not using their functions, powers or other decision-making powers contrary to law and codes of conduct, such as the Code of Conduct for Civil Servants, the Code of Conduct for Civil Servants in State Bodies and Local Communities, the Code of Conduct for Government and Ministries Officials of the Republic of Slovenia and the Code of Conduct for National Councillors of the National Council of the Republic of Slovenia.

Lobbying ends where the corruption starts

In Slovenia, the understanding of lobbying is still based on the mistaken belief that lobbying is directly linked to corruption. The fact is, however, that lobbying – as a regulated, controlled and legitimate activity – has nothing in common with corruption, bribery and other illegal practices. The negative public opinion also discourages many decision-makers from meeting stakeholder representatives and listening to their views and arguments, which can lead to lower-quality public policies and other decisions that affect people’s daily lives.

The objective for the future in lobbying must therefore be to raise the level of awareness of all directly involved in this activity – stakeholders, lobbyists and their target audience – who must also ensure that lobbying is legal (in line with the law), legitimate (in line with the codes of conduct) and ethic (in line with broader social interests). For the sake of better connotation, it would be wise to consider regulating this field in an independent law as the Slovenian Association of Lobbyists was suggesting for years.

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