Lobbying —a word derived from Anglo-Saxon — refers to the practice through which different actors seek to influence those who make public decisions for the benefit or representation of their interests. This practice is not new; on the contrary, it has its origins in the 19th century in the city of London, when parliamentarians met in the Palace of Westminster—specifically in the central lobby— with their main constituents, and advocated for their interests. Hence the name.

Lobbying: an ethical challenge

It is important to understand that lobbying should not be viewed as an illegitimate practice —as is often mistakenly the case—, because it only refers to a form of political participation in which different actors from society seek to defend their interests, which is totally valid. For this reason, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)[1] points out that lobbying is a democratic right and, therefore, constitutes a valid mechanism to influence governments during the process to create public policies.

It is even viewed as being a beneficial part of a democracy as it allows for greater deliberation on decisions that impact the public. This should mean that public decision makers have a broader panorama, more information, more complete data, different perspectives of the different actors involved and are more aware of the various problems associated with the situation in which they wish to intervene and/or regulate.

However, lobbying does not always go smoothly. On many occasions it can lead to inequality in the representation of interests, undue influence, unfair competition, among other irregular and/or corrupt practices where private interests are put on the table and prioritised over collective concerns. To avoid these pitfalls, it is important to implement a clear regulation on lobbying and raise the standards of integrity around this practice, preventing a possible institutional takeover by stakeholders who have a greater capacity to influence the public or that are irregular in their practices.

Ultimately, the problem does not lie in lobbying itself, but in the absence of a regulatory framework around this practice, because a regulatory vacuum can lead to possible incidences of corruption when stakeholders seek to pressure and influence public decision makers. In turn, the regulation of lobbying not only brings benefits in that it closes the door on potentially corrupt practices, but also makes the process of formulating public policies visible, generating greater participation and trust from different sectors of society, which in turn legitimizes lobbying.

The regulation of lobbying

Globally, the regulation of lobbying has been slow in taking place, with the exception of some pioneering countries such as the United States, who regulated this activity in 1946, followed by Germany, in 1951. However, the implementation of most regulatory frameworks has taken place from the 2000s and on a limited basis. By 2020, only 18 countries had regulation and public information on the practice of lobbying, which confirms the delays that currently exist around transparency of this practice[2].

In Latin America, the panorama is also worrying. Only three countries have made significant progress in regulating lobbying; the first of them was Peru in 2003, then Mexico in 2010 and Chile in 2014 [3]. In Colombia, as in most countries in the region, there have been legislative advances and increasingly in-depth and serious discussions. However, there is still a long way to go, despite the existence of a Constitutional mandate stipulated in Article 144 of our Political Constitution, where the obligation to regulate this practice is ruled on, as well as Chapter IV of the Anti-Corruption Statute (Law 1474 2011) on the regulation of lobbying. Although the intentions to regulate it have been present year after year, there is still no real progress.

In recent years, there have been over ten attempts to regulate lobbying by the Congress of the Republic. Last year, once again, its regulation was sought through Bill 410 of 2021[4] and Bill 193 of 2021[5], which collected and consolidated the content, principles, motivations of the bills presented in previous years. However, as on all previous occasions, these bills were shelved. This year, with Bill 087 of 2022 [6] presented on 2 August, the aim is once again to make this practice transparent, improve levels of public participation and thus avoid risks related to corruption and conflicts of interest. But will we finally achieve it?

The truth is that generating greater transparency around lobbying is not an easy task, mainly due to the lack of interest that exists in regulating this practice on the part of the actors involved, both public officials and lobbyists, but also due to the challenges that exist during the implementation phase. Special care must be taken when regulating. For example, it has been demonstrated that more flexible and indirect regulation is more effective than direct regulation with harsh laws; in turn, the effectiveness of an indirect and flexible regulation depends to a large extent on the ability of the competent authorities to control, monitor and sanction[7]. All these are aspects to consider when establishing a new regulation.

Likewise, in order to raise the standards around this practice and avoid associated risks, it is Important that the recommendations issued by different international organizations be taken into account when regulating lobbying. «Principles For Transparency And Integrity In Lobbying» by the OECD [8] or «International Standards For Lobbying Regulation» of Transparency International, Access Info Europe, Sunlight Foundation and Open Knowledge International[9], are good examples of the advances that exist in in relation to the good practices that should be implemented around lobbying.

CabilVeo, an initiative to understand lobbying

In the absence of any regulation of lobbying in Colombia, the Anti-Corruption Institute created the CabilVeo initiative in 2018, a project that seeks to understand lobbying and public relations through the analysis of four fields of information requested from dozens of national State entities, these are: i) visits; ii) trips made by public officials, both abroad and within the country; iii) the agendas of public officials and iv) gifts given by external parties to public officials.

This project has enabled us to be able to denounce different irregular acts and risks of corruption detected through the analyzed information, both by the Anti-Corruption Institute and investigative journalism. Some of the main findings and complaints refer to the Case of “mermelada” (how Colombians refer to corrupt spending) in the Department of Social Prosperity, as well as the controversial visits to Minister Carrasquilla, the records of income and meetings with the ICT Ministry connected to the Digital Centers project, among others form the basis of complaints filed due to the information provided by the project, which can be consulted in detail directly here.

However, despite the fact that the CabilVeo project has made progress in terms of making lobbying and public relations more transparent, it is necessary for the new Congress of the Republic to promote an agenda that prioritizes and allows for the regulatipn of lobbying in Colombia. This is a debt that has been pending for over 20 years, when the first bills that tried to implement a regulatory framework were presented.