Over the last two years, much has been made about the corrosive impact that lobbying has on public policy. The worst of these examples are the recent revelations about a possible behind the scenes deal struck between the Department of Communications under former Minister of Communications Ms. Faith Muthambi and NASPERS on set top boxes. The story goes that one of the Gupta aligned outfits assisted NASPERS to get its preferred configuration of the free set top boxes to stymy competition in the broadcasting sector. We all await patiently what investigations will uncover about this and hope that if found to be in the wrong, NASPERS and its associates will receive due punishment and be shamed for infringing, essentially, on the rights of South Africans to quality services from the state. We now also know about McKinsey & Co, and Trillian.
These questions have led many to question the role of lobbying in policy making. Some question the utility of companies seeking to build relationships with government institutions for influencing policy decisions in a manner that favours their business interests. This is amplified by what can be characterised as a uniquely South African distaste for explicit lobbying by business. Perhaps this stems from our Marxist views about business and how it seeks to entrench itself at the expense of the rest of society.
Our dim view of lobbying however rests of a fundamental misinterpretation of the function that lobbying plays in enhancing policy making. At its core, lobbying is designed to transmit the view of interested parties to policy making stakeholders. Primarily, this is done with the understanding that in balancing the interests of society broadly, policy makers are wont to seek ideologically aligned positions and to disregard hardcore business considerations. For instance, current proposals about the liquor industry take the view that what is good for society (reducing alcohol consumption) is a legitimate goal that must be pursued, whatever the cost in jobs and economic development. This proceeds from the common sense understanding that alcohol has very high external costs and is present in many societal ills such rape, car accidents and murders. Of course, these are legitimate concerns that a duly mandated government must take into consideration when charting a path for the country.
However, the industry has taken a strong view against some of the proposals in the liquor bill, including that the bill is potentially unconstitutional, infringes on the legitimate rights of private business, will destroy jobs and most importantly, will not achieve its objectives in the long term. For the purposes of this short discussion, the key question to consider is the means through which the industry must engage the government. For those who regard lobbying as a soiled enterprise, the clear platform for such engagement would be institutional structures such as parliament or duly constituted consultation mechanisms established by the legislating department. This is good and fair. However, experience in South Africa has shown that such structures have been known to underperform their mandates. Recent experience tells us that government has been sent back to the drawing board on new and amendments laws many times because of a lack of consultation or lack of earnest consultation.
Many South African companies do not have public affairs business units to maintain ongoing engagement with policy makers. As a result, they react to developments after the fact. They lack relationships in key decision-making structures, undermining their ability to influence decisions before they are made. They complain of government incompetence and rent seeking, without making an earnest effort to alter government thinking in their favour. As result, policy makers are left none the wiser on business considerations in the sectors they seek to regulate.
For their party, government officials sit in their offices and repeat to themselves “that capitalists are out to capture them and to undermine government. They conveniently dismiss their responsibility to consult extensively as a means either to punish business, or to affirm their authority.
The ambivalence towards lobbying creates unnecessary tensions over policy making and undermine the possibility for sensible policies. There is a strong need for private industry and government to take a more open approach to lobbying. This practice needs to be brought out of the shadows to enable mature conversations about policy choices. Government must accept that business is not a nuisance to be tolerated. It is a critical stakeholder like labour and the community. At the same time, business must accept that government has a responsibility not only to create an enabling framework for business success, but chiefly, to ensure the creation of a society that is equal, prosperous and equitable for all citizens.