The Internet, Transparency & Public Advocacy
Submission to Industry Committee on the
Review of the Lobbyist Registration Act
Scott Proudfoot and Michael Teeter
The Internet is opening up the lobbying/public advocacy process by becoming the “pre-digestion’ chamber where public policy ideas are being introduced, accessed, advocated, promoted, and debated on-line before they flow into the more formal channels of official policy making. The success of civil society groups in using the Internet to publicly advance their causes is pushing mainstream interests to be more competitive in this on-line battle to win ‘hearts & minds.’ New technologies will accelerate this trend.
Governments can use the Internet to make public policy formation more open, transparent and inclusive by exploring the potential of e-communities and opening up the public consultation process. The Lobbying industry will be part of this important development. We believe the Act and its administration must be attuned to these trends and a contributing part of them. Our specific conclusions are:
- The Internet is rapidly opening up the policy development process. Government should actively encourage this. At the same time, care should be taken to answer the age-old question - Who are they & Who do they legitimately represent?
- E-communities are beneficial to sound policy development. They should be open, transparent and balanced in perspective, particularly where these communities are government-initiated.
- Consider a "Consultation Canada" Internet space which includes two-way dialogue features, but also position-posting within aggregated policy fields. Build ‘consultation communities’ through permission and request-based e-mail listserves. Open up the lobbying process by recognizing that in an Internet world every citizen can be his or her own lobbyist.
- Make sure our elected representatives are centrally located within the consultation, dialogue and position-posting infrastructure.
Who We Are:
We have been in the government relations business for over 20 years, both Tier 2 lobbyists (Association Executives- "In House Lobbyists-Organizations") and Tier 1 lobbyists ("Consultant Lobbyists"). We also both worked on the Hill and in government in the late 70's and early 80's.
Last year we created Hillwatch Inc. to integrate our traditional government relations business with the latest digital campaigning techniques.
We also created www.Hillwatch.com which is a web portal designed as a politics & public policy on-line resource center for people working in politics and government or people who want to influence government. On the site, we have organized and subdivided over 2300 site links into categories to help people find useful resources. Hillwatch.com is intended to showcase the public policy positions of the private sector – associations, NGOs, coalitions corporations.
From a standing start six months ago, we have attracted 40,000 visitors. This was all done with minimal direct promotion.
When we started our new company and web portal, our fundamental assumption was that the Internet would change the way that lobbying was done and it would make our business more open and transparent. You can either resist the change or go with it. We decided to go with it.
Why The Internet Will Open Up Lobbying!
First, because of the Internet, Government itself is more transparent and open. It used to be hard for the ordinary citizen to get information about what government was doing. Now, there is more and more information available on-line every day.
Second, corporations, associations, & civil society groups are putting more and more of their lobbying positions and activities on-line.
On our site we have a feature called Lobby List. We list 450 Canadian groups& associations organized in different sector or issue areas plus several hundred international groups. What these groups all have in common is that they post many of their public policy positions on their web sites where you or I can see them.
We also have a feature called Hot Issues. We give a neutral outline of topical public policy issue like Genetically-Modified Foods (GMO), Brain Drain, Climate Change and then we provide links to on-line information resources and groups who hold strong positions on the issue in question. It illustrates the amount of debate on topical political issues that is easily available on-line. And there are multiple search engines or site like Hillwatch.com that can help you find that information.
For anyone with Internet access, simply stated, there is a level of information and transparency about the advocacy positions of different groups in our society that four or five years ago would not have been thinkable.
Third, this trend will only accelerate. The Internet is becoming the “pre-digestion” chamber for public policy discussion. Public policy ideas are being introduced, accessed, advocated, promoted, and debated on-line and then they flow into the more formal channels of official policymaking. As issues move through the formal channels, a parallel debate occurs on-line. Once decisions are taken, the issues are re-fought on-line.
On-line debate and discussion is becoming the background soundtrack of government policy-making, both reflecting and influencing the process.
Fourth, the power of the Internet to shape public policy discussion stems from the question: Where do people go first for information?
If we asked MP staff, committee researchers, the press, public service policy makers, think tank researchers, associations executives and politically engaged citizens where they go first for information – it is likely that over 80% would say the Internet. If we asked them how often they go on-line looking for information, most would reply at least once a day. A majority would likely reply: "Several times a day".
If the people who drive, shape, comment on and service public policy discussions are going on-line daily, then those who want to access that audience need to be on-line and easy to find.
Those who have grasped this the quickest and have been the first to use the Internet extensively to push their public policy positions has been the Civil Society groups – particularly the ones who are permanent campaign organizations. They have gravitated to the Internet for one simple reason; the Internet allows them to perform a host of functions on-line which they previously did off-line. In most instances, it allows them to do these functions better, quicker and cheaper. The Internet is the ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of political advocacy and organization.
- It permits rapid, wide and deep information collection;
- Anyone can publish their views directly and cheaply;
- It is tremendously effective and accessible distribution mediums;
- Kindred spirits can find each other and engage in advocacy.
The Internet tends to level the playing field between those with lots of money and those with a little. Even groups with limited resources can create a professional-looking web site to self-publish, attract supporters and organize campaigns.
Fifth, corporations and the established political parties have been more cautious and careful about the Internet. They are not completely comfortable with the new medium. But they are being compelled to play whether totally comfortable or not.
Because the civil society groups have gravitated to the net and learned to use it effectively to attack the mainstream interests, they are forcing these groups on the Internet in self-defence.
A good illustration of this is the Genetically Modified Food debate. Anti-GMO groups have been steadily attacking industry and have used the Internet extremely effectively to push their anti-GMO food campaign globally. The companies involved have had no choice but to respond. Most now have lots of information up on their own corporate sites. They are offering links to more information. They have created separate site to pull together the industry positions. As the debate has heated up, Governments have found themselves in the middle of it. They, in turn, are pulling all the government information on the topic under single gateway sites.
The bottom-line impact: Due to the Internet, this policy debate has become extremely accessible. The main arguments & evidence advanced by the various groups and the government is available to anyone who wants to actively seek them out. Imagine how much more limited and restricted the debate would have been five or ten years ago?
This pattern is repeating itself on other issues everyday. If an issue does not emerge from the Internet, it is soon pulled into the cyber-arena to begin the digestion process. Currently, this process is pretty chaotic but predictable issue access points such as Hillwatch.com and others are emerging over time.
Actively interested Canadians will not only be able to follow the debate over issues on-line but various factions will be actively seeking to obtain their support and participation.
While the Internet will allow greater access to public policy debate, it will come at a cost for legislators who are already the target of political spam. It is only going to get worse. According to a recent news article, the average US Senate office receives 55,000 e-mails a month and a House members get 8,000 pieces. This places a tremendous burden on office staff. Cyber-political trends in Canada seem to be lagging those in the US by a couple of years but the flood will come. Managing e-mail will become a real challenge and a chore for Members of Parliament.
As the technology evolves, in the coming years even more sophisticated advocacy tools will be put in the hands of interest groups.
For example, most of us have heard of Napster either because we have used it to download music or because we have been following the court case in the papers.
Napster is a peer-to-peer distributed computing system. This technology has implications well beyond downloading music files. It also used in the SETI@Home, a distributed computing project in which thousands of volunteer computers scour radio telescope data for signs of alien life. The EU currently is putting together a peer-to-peer network which people volunteer the unused capacity in their desktop computer to jointly create a virtual supercomputer to support scientific projects in which massive number crunching is a requirement.
Meanwhile, technology is being developed to allow thousands of surfers to visit web sites serving streaming or broadcast rich media contents at the same time without requiring massive server capacity.
Imagine civil society advocacy groups asking their supporters to donate their excess desktop computing power to allow them to cheaply create television quality broadcasts over the Internet. Once we have convergence between broadband and digital television in the home, we may be able to tune into the Anti-Globalization Supper Hour Broadcast, the Animal Rights Morning Show, and The Environmentalists' Late Show.
If a Political Party is unhappy with its national press gallery coverage, it can ask its supporters to donate processing power and the party can create its own television show.
Currently, the Internet allows groups to create web sites to broadcast their point of view, mostly in the form of text based messaging. In a few years, inexpensive processing power, cheap digital cameras and user-friendly off-the-shelf computerized production capability will allow groups with limited resources to become digital television broadcasters.
Political advocacy is unlikely to be the first use of the new technology but there is no reason why it won’t be one of the uses.
(The even bigger idea is to use the excess digital processing power of the First World to help cross the digital divide in the Third World. At any given time, Canadian federal department probably has enough excess computing power to power the computer processing needs of the average African country.)
Public policy advocacy is often presented as a contest in which the government is a fortress (‘the black box’) assaulted by various interests trying to push and pull it in a particular directions. We think the Internet can be used to develop public policy in a less adversarial, zero-sum fashion by developing interest-specific e-communities.
In less than six years, the Internet has facilitated distribution and access to an unprecedented body of human knowledge. A significant outcome has been the empowerment of people to become more aware, more informed, and ultimately more involved. Overall, this has resulted in a shift in societal expectations towards greater openness, transparency and engagement. The stage is set for much greater civic participation in the political and policy process.
One of the unique aspects the Internet has helped to create is the geographically independent community. Brought together through shared concerns, these communities are able to take root and thrive due to the medium’s low cost of access, unsurpassed ability to share information, and interactivity. Communities, regardless of their size, have been given a voice through this medium and used it as an effective platform to spread their message. For some communities, the success of challenging traditional power structures and entrenched beliefs has been front-page news.
It may be not be apparent to many people, but government itself is actively building communities of interests of around government objectives. Today, government officials are using the Internet to do this. Government-initiated e-communities are building rapidly and decisively. These e-communities frequently are national and international in scope and include members from other governments, from the academic world, from industry, from associations, the public, etc. E-communities are frequently "deputized" to promote policy positions that serve the interests of the community itself. These positions may not be government policy, but they might become government policy over time. Sometimes, e-community building within government is integrated with the Federal Identity Program.
We see this development as a very positive step in opening up public policy debate and bringing many more points of view to the development of good government. While there is a risk that government-initiated e-communities bring only one perspective to a file, the checks and balances within the federal policy development process are sufficient to ensure that divergent points of view are considered prior to decision-making. It is important that e-communities be inclusive and transparent to the stakeholders.
Transparent government-initiated e-communities are an important and beneficial development for a pluralistic society. They can invite and accommodate disparate points of view, they can integrate conflicting elements of a debate, and they can reduce (and even eliminate) the adversarial and polarized approach that has been a hallmark of the traditional lobbying process.
Working with government to build transparent, inclusive, effective and representative e-communities is a new area of Hillwatch business. We are excited about the prospects in this new era of on-line government.
There Is Transparency & Then There Is Transparency!
The Internet also will create new advocacy & transparency issues that go beyond the conception of the current Lobbyist Registry Act.
There may be more public policy debate occurring on the Internet but how do we know who is behind a particular advocacy web site unless it is clearly stated? Does a professional looking web site represent the views of hundreds of thousands of Canadians or just the views of Larry, Moe and a few of their friends?
Many web sites fail to provide basic details to allow viewers to weigh the value of the information & views being presented and the interests involved.
And ironically it is some of the civil society groups who are often the worst offenders. There may be minimal information about how they are governed, their board, their main officers, how many members they have, the source of their funding, etc. Currently, they are held to looser standards of disclosure than the corporations some of them criticize.
Much of this simply reflects the immaturity of the Internet as a political medium. Sometimes it is just bad web-site design.
We are currently seeing on-line retail companies subscribe to voluntary codes and ‘trustmark’ programs with respect to good consumer practices and privacy protection. We will probably also see a demand for standardized disclosure practices for web sites engaging in public policy advocacy.
This may be an issue the committee will want to take up in future reviews of the Act.
Using the Internet to Make the Public Consultation Process More Transparent
If transparency is the goal, why not start up front with the public consultation process.
Some public consultations are exceptionally well done – open, inclusive, & transparent. But many public consultations leave a lot to be desired. Chronic problems include:
Rounding Up the Usual Suspects – Departments get in the habit of dealing with a small number of regular stakeholders and give insufficient thought to who else may be affected by their actions.
Inadequate Public Notice - Some organizations only learn about a public consultation process affecting their interests after the consultations have come and gone.
Last Minute Rush - Internal processes bog down, decisions are delayed, deadlines are missed, and then there is a rush to act. Consultations seem to be an afterthought. They get rushed. Participants have inadequate time to prepare and feel bulldozed.
As it turns out, Tony Blair’s Labor Government is using the Internet to address some of these problems. We think the Canadian Government could ‘borrow’ Mr. Blair’s idea and improve on it.
On the UK Government’s citizen portal, UK Online, an area called Citizen Space has been created to encourage greater participation in public policy discussions. In this area, the Cabinet Office runs a central public registry of on-going government consultations
- Current consultations topics are listed.
- Links to background information on the issue are provided.
- The date when consultations start and end is indicated.
- You are told how to prepare a submission and where to send it. You can e-mail it directly from the site if you wish.
The central registry actually links to departmental consultation registries. There you can find out which consultations are ‘live’, which have recently closed, and obtain a copy of the government’s formal response to past consultations, which includes summaries of views expressed and reasons for the final decisions taken.
Since all the UK departments have a ‘Consultations’ button easily displayed on the front page of their individual websites, you don’t need to go to the central site to find out what departments are doing.
To make the process more uniform and transparent, Prime Minister Blair and the Cabinet Office have established a formal Consultation Code. It lays out the ground rules to deal with issues such as transparency, openness, and accountability. Officials who don’t follow the rules will have their knuckles rapped.
The UK Government’s program is a solid digital democracy initiative and they deserve credit for opening up the doors.
To be fair, there are examples of good digital consultations within the Canadian federal system. Some examples are Industry Canada's spectrum consultations and the recent GATS consultation conducted by DFAIT.
And, the Department of Finance seems to have made a cyber visit to the UK. Finance Minister Martin recently made reference to this commitment in his speech to the recent Crossing Boundaries Conference which was co-chaired by a member of this committee. The Finance Department has put up a consultation registry on its web site, which is similar to a registry established by the UK Inland Revenue Department. Now, if only the other departments could jump on board and the center could link the pieces in a central registry, it would be a big step forward.
However, to make the process of public policy decision-making even more open, transparent and inclusive, a few improvements could be made on the UK approach.
Why can’t anyone be informed of an upcoming consultation by e-mail?
As part of any Consultation Registry why not provide a generic but detailed list of topics. Allow people to check the boxes of the topics that interest them and have a list server automatically send an e-mail notification of an upcoming consultation. The technology for this functionality is now run-of-the-mill.
Why can’t submissions to public consultations be easily accessible?
If some group made a submission to a public consultation, why can’t you or I read it. In the departmental registry, each consultation topics could have a "Submission" button. Submission could be listed chronologically with the name of the group and the title of their submission with a link to the actual submission. A low cost option is for the link to go to the group’s own web site where the submission can be viewed. The more costly option is for the government to host the submissions that would then have to be provided in a standardized digital format. In the interests of time and efficiency, summaries could also be provided among aggregated subject areas.
By providing links or posting summarized stakeholder positions on important matters of public policy, the decision-making process will be made more transparent and open and will facilitate sound decision-making. We believe this is a legitimate and important role for government to perform. Also, it could do a lot to dispel the incorrect public view that policy development is all about access and backroom deals.
Such a position registry could well serve the fundamental premises of the Lobbyist Registration Act.
The key caveat here is that not all consultation should be open and no individual or group should be forced to make their submission public if they do not want to. Most groups will be quite happy to put their views on the record but this should not be a requirement. Government bodies need affected parties to be frank with them and sometimes the assurance of confidentiality is a legitimate and necessary pre-condition for this to happen.
Why shouldn’t elected representatives be in the loop?
As government puts more information, transactions, & consultations on-line, there is a real danger of our elected representatives being bypassed. Canadians are now and will increasingly talk back to web sites. Government sites, in turn, will use increasingly sophisticated feedback and public input mechanisms to capture and register our points of view. The executive already has most of the power. Electronic government has the capacity to shift more power in their direction. Elected members of Parliament have to be built into the electronic loop at different levels to preserve some balance and democratic accountability and representative government
Any central or departmental registry of consultations should have a "Contact Your MP" button prominently displayed. When individuals use these sites to send their submission, they should be asked whether they want to send a copy to their MP and then shown how to do it then and there.
In its most recent campaign Red Book, the government stated:
"We believe the Internet can be about more than doing business and delivering services to Canadians. Broad access to the Internet will enable Canadian citizens to engage in the democratic process by having an electronic pipeline to government and their representatives in Parliament."
Making public consultations more open, transparent and accessible would be a good place to start. If more people were encouraged to participate that would be great. If more people simply came to see the system as more open and accessible, that too would be a benefit and encourage more confidence in our government institutions.
The Internet is rapidly opening up the policy development process. Government should actively encourage this. At the same time, care should be taken to answer the age-old question - Who are they & Who do they legitimately represent?
E-communities are beneficial to sound policy development. They should be open, transparent and balanced in perspective, particularly where these communities are government-initiated. Consider a "Consultation Canada" Internet space which includes two-way dialogue features, but also position-posting within aggregated policy fields. Build ‘consultation communities’ through permission and request-based e-mail listserves. Open up the lobbying process by recognizing that in an Internet world every citizen can be his or her own lobbyist.
Make sure our elected representatives are centrally located within the consultation, dialogue and position-posting infrastructure.