LOBBYING FOR GOOD
MICHELE FOSSI in conversation with ALBERTO ALEMANNO
‘LOBBYING’ IS CONSIDERED BY MANY A PERNICIOUS WAY OF MIXING PRIVATE INTERESTS WITH POLITICS, OFTEN OVERTLY AGAINST THE INTERESTS OF THE CITIZENS THEMSELVES. WHAT IF CIVIL SOCIETY STARTED UTILISING THE SAME TOOL, AND IN THE NAME OF THE COMMON GOOD?
SCHOLAR ALBERTO ALEMANNO, AUTHOR OF THE BOOK LOBBYING FOR CHANGE, ARGUES THAT ‘GOOD LOBBYISM’ COULD PLAY A STRATEGIC ROLE IN MAKING ACTIVISM MORE EFFECTIVE AND IN OBTAINING NOT JUST MOMENTUM, BUT ALSO CONCRETE POLICIES WRITTEN IN STONE IN LAW BOOKS.
HE IS THE FOUNDER OF THE GOOD LOBBY, A CIVIC START-UP COMMITTED TO GIVING VOICE TO UNDERREPRESENTED TOPICS OF PUBLIC DOMAIN WHILE MAKING MORE CITIZENS INTERESTED IN THE PROCESS OF PUBLIC POLICY. BY CREATING A COMMON GROUND FOR NGOS, PROGRESSIVE COMPANIES, CAMPAIGNERS AND PHILANTHROPIC FOUNDATIONS, THROUGH TARGETED ENGAGEMENT IN THE POLICY PROCESS THE GOOD LOBBY FOSTERS ASSERTIVE CITIZENSHIP AS A TOOL TO CREATE MORE ACCOUNTABLE, COHESIVE AND HAPPIER SOCIETIES. AT A TIME WHERE MANY PEOPLE FEEL DISENFRANCHISED, REMOVED FROM THE POLICY PROCESS AND UNEMPOWERED, CAN CITIZEN-LOBBYISM ACT AS A POWERFUL ANTIDOTE AGAINST THE SPREAD OF POPULISM ALL OVER THE WORLD, AND BRIDE THE GAP BETWEEN THE INSTITUTIONS AND THE PEOPLE?
DUST MET WITH ALEMANNO TO HAVE A CLOSER LOOK AT HOW THE GOOD LOBBY WORKS IN PRACTICAL TERMS AND GOING THROUGH SOME OF THE MOVEMENT’S MORE RECENT STORIES OF SUCCESS.
MICHELE FOSSI — ‘The Good Lobby’ might sound like an oxymoron to many.
ALBERTO ALEMANNO — I agree – as a term, it carries a negative connotation today. In reality, lobbying is nothing else but talking to your decision-maker, your political representative and trying to influence the next decision they will take. There’s nothing inherently negative about lobbying. Lobbying is a legitimate activity that everybody should be able to engage with. It’s really about connecting citizens with decision-makers and politicians.
M.F. — Nonetheless, there must be a good reason as to why today, lobbying is perceived so negatively.
A.A. — Historically, only organised groups, mainly corporations and other major power agents, have been using lobbies to engage with politicians. Most of us citizens are only really given a chance to engage with such people during the elections. Once they’re over, we have to wait for four or five years until we can vote again, and consequently punish or reward our political actors. That’s how representative democracy works. So in this societal set-up, lobbying becomes a prerogative of big corporations, while for citizens, it is difficult to engage with their elected representatives on a daily – if not simply more regular – basis.
M.F. — If we exclude the most blatant cases of corruption, how can big companies have the power to efficiently find such representatives to pass the laws that they want according to their needs?
A.A. — Well, lobbying, as practised today by major corporations (but also smaller companies), mainly consists of legitimate interactions, ranging from meetings or information sharing, data provision, reports, which politicians require before making decisions. On a purely technical level, what most of these organisations do is legal. The problem – let me stress it again – is not lobbying in itself, but the fact that only corporations are taking part in it, while citizens are left out of the game, underrepresented.
M.F. — And that’s somewhat ironic, considering the efforts that governments in Europe and other Western countries are making to promote citizens’ participation in political discourse.
A.A. — Indeed. Governments are more and more open and interested in listening to what citizens have to say about the particular phenomenon they are willing to regulate, whether it be about LGBT rights, social welfare or climate change. Governments want to listen. In other words, they want to be lobbied. But when they open to public consultation with the intent of receiving an honest opinion and sharing information, only the usual suspects show up. The people who pander to politicians are always the same. Therefore, the final decision and the final policy that is adopted by politicians are often not representative of everybody’s interests, but, instead, only of those represented by professional lobbyists.
M.F. — There are countless cases where traditional lobbyism has managed to promote legislations that are clearly against the interest of the citizens and society as a whole. What is the best example that comes to mind?
A.A. — The most classic example comes from the United States, where, after decades of strenuous lobbying, the gun lobby has proved itself successful in changing how the average citizen in the U.S. perceives weapons. They have managed to flip over the notion ‘ arms should be handled with care’ and turned it into the conviction that everybody is entitled to have a gun as a matter of personal freedom.
M.F. — Furthermore, despite the accidents and shooting sprees that occur in schools and public places virtually every year, thanks to their lobbying efforts, they managed to maintain their supremacy.
A.A. — This is one of the most blatant examples of what bad lobbying can lead to, in a country like the United States. As far as Europe is concerned, we have seen big technological companies, ranging from Google to Facebook, that make use of lobbying to impose their agenda, which often goes against the interests of citizens themselves. These companies have been extremely skilful in discouraging politicians from stepping in and regulating the way they collect, monetise and utilise data to provide new paid services. As a result, citizens now pay twice for these services. Firstly, when we give away our data without receiving any remuneration in return, and then when we purchase their software or advertising space on Facebook. These ads represent around 98 per cent of their final revenue, which technically makes Facebook an advertising company, and it should be treated as such.
M.F. — One particular subcategory of these ads, called ‘political ads’, is considered one of the most critical areas by many, and should be strictly regulated, if not totally banned, as recently advocated by Alexandra Ocasio Cortez during her question time with Mark Zuckerberg that took place in the American Congress.
A.A. — Political advertising today is very harsh, indeed. There is a lot of evidence suggesting that it causes a hugely negative impact on our political conversation. Any political party, any candidate taking part in European elections or elsewhere, can pay Facebook to reach out to their constituency and target future electors without ever even meeting them face to face. And yet, Facebook, thanks to its lobbies in Brussels, always manages to prevent the European Union from banning political advertising. The only social network that took a stance against it is Twitter, as they have stopped accepting money in exchange for the diffusion of political messages.
M.F. — With this being the situation, in 2015, you decided to found The Good Lobby.
A.A. — At the origin of the creation of The Good Lobby, there was the observation of how paradoxical the current situation is. How can we be so powerless when we are more educated than our ancestors, thus also being more able to make a difference? We’re doing much better than our ancestors, but we are also feeling much less in control of our own lives. Therefore, we have decided to create a strategy that aims to allow anyone to become a lobbyist and trigger changes within the community.
M.F. — How does it work?
A.A. — The core idea consists in enabling any citizen to pick a battle of their choice and build a good lobby of people around that particular cause. For example, somebody might be truly angry because the park close to their house is about to be demolished by a big investment whose funds are going towards building a skyscraper. Or somebody might feel like their kids are being discriminated because they come from a same-sex couple. It could be anything, from a very localised cause to a global issue.
WITH THE GOOD LOBBY, WE HELP THOSE INDIVIDUALS TO TURN THEIR LITTLE CAMPAIGN INTO A LOBBY – A GROUP OF PEOPLE CAPABLE OF INTERACTING WITH DECISION-MAKERS AND INFLUENCING THEIR CHOICES. WE ARE AN INCUBATOR OF GOOD LOBBIES, SCOUTING PROJECTS ALL ACROSS EUROPE AND BEYOND AND TURNING THEM INTO
We apply a designated methodology, which involves ten steps that are accessible to anyone.
M.F. — A decalogue for budding lobbyists, tell us more.
A.A. — The first thing is to establish what your battle is. Step two requires doing your homework, gathering evidence and researching data that will allow you to get a general sense of what is going on. Step number three involves mapping out the environment, identifying your allies or your enemies. And so forth and so on. We can guide individuals step by step through the process of creating a proper movement that can exert pressure on political representatives.
M.F. — The Good Lobby is also a platform where talents and skills can be gathered, right?
A.A. — Yes. Once we have identified a promising project from a citizen or a group of citizens, we don’t necessarily provide all the help in-house, as we are a small organisation. But we match that particular request with people who have the required expertise. So let’s assume you’re going to work on LGBT rights and you want to get your law passed or promote a policy change. We analyse the case and match you with lawyers, communication experts or academics who have been writing on these issues, thus helping to build what we call a ‘Good Lobby Team’. We create a ‘community’ where both the people who want to create lobbies and the professionals who wish to assist them can meet and work towards the same goals.
M.F. — And these professionals are working pro bono?
A.A. — That’s correct. The voluntary work is the oil of The Good Lobby machine. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to make the engine work and incubate so many projects. So virtually everyone in our community is currently either requesting or offering pro bono advice. We are around 1000 people actively involved in our projects, and the overall community is around 20.000 now, spread out over various European countries.
M.F. — Do you think that this platform could further grow and expand from the pro bono model into a proper economic ecosystem? An ecosystem in which maybe you can also catalyse money from donors to pay the best lawyers, for example. Would something like this work or do you think the pro bono model is what you will stick to?
A.A. — This is a great question. A couple of years ago, we identified our Hybrid business model, which consists of a social entrepreneurship structure. We are a social enterprise, and Ashoka recently identified us as having one of the most innovative models. The essence is that we are receiving funding from foundations, private philanthropy groups, who are investing in NGOs, in what they call ‘grantees’. These ‘grantees’ are very often are groups of citizens who do not necessarily have the advocacy capacity. So these foundations give us funds to train and support them. Four or five foundations support us in Europe at the moment. But, as you were saying, there are many other ways of supporting our activities. We are also working with law firms and companies that are providing pro bono support to our causes. We are already collaborating with about 12 law firms in Europe. They support us because they like to have their employees working on real projects that actually make a difference and can also give them a sense of personal satisfaction.
M.F. — The feeling of distance between politics and people is increasingly seen as one of the major problems of today’s society, as well as one of the main causes of the rise of populism. Do you think The Good Lobby could be the antidote against this populist drift that we are experiencing on a global scale?
A.A. — Absolutely. In my book Lobbying for Change, I have already explained in detail why I am convinced that citizen participation is a powerful antidote against the rise in populism. I think the essence of this lobby idea is to equalise access to power.
MUCH OF THE PROBLEMS WE ARE FACING TODAY HAS TO DO WITH THE DIFFICULTIES AND INEQUALITIES – NOT ONLY ON AN ECONOMIC LEVEL BUT, FIRST OF ALL, ON A POLITICAL ONE.
THE WEIGHT THAT EACH OF US HAS IN THE POLITICAL PROCESSES THAT AFFECT OUR LIFE VARIES CONSIDERABLY.
Those variations also have to do, of course, with economic inequality. So when you claim that citizens should be equally as impactful as corporations in engaging with political power, you’re making an argument for equalising access to power. And that’s precisely what we do. We level up accesses to power by creating yet another mechanism that allows our democracy to function. Our mission is to make it easier for citizens to communicate with their politicians. This should be the priority of every citizen to start with. Each one of us should know what the names of our political representatives are. We should hold them accountable and share ideas with them.
M.F. — So this is the essence of Citizen Lobbying: sharing ideas with political representatives and holding them accountable if they can’t integrate our preferences.
A.A. — Exactly. If more and more citizens were willing to share ideas with their representatives, we would find ourselves living in a much better society, one more pluralistic and also equal in terms of access to power.
M.F. — Let’s come up with a practical example of how a cause can be supported through The Good Lobby.
A.A. — In 2012, together with my students, we used a new petition system introduced that same year – the European Citizen Initiative – in order to ask the E.U. to take a very concrete and symbolic step in favour of its citizens: to stop international roaming, the extra phone charges E.U. citizens had to pay when travelling in another E.U. state. The European Union found our proposal exciting and, for over a year, together with my students, a bunch of NGOs and other organisations, we found ourselves at the discussion panel along with European commissioners and the CEOs of major European telecommunication companies. It took over three years before the law could be passed, but, after that, we knew that this was the way to go forward.
M.F. — A more recent example is your collaboration with Riparte il Futuro, an Italian organisation that came to us with the aim of convincing the E.U. to formulate the first law to protect whistleblowers.
A.A. — That’s a good one! In 2014, whistleblowers were not legally protected at all. So we drafted a specific policy on the matter and proposed it to political leaders within the European Parliament and the commission of several member states. Along the way, we managed to get the law passed in Italy and then, finally this spring, the European Directive made it applicable across all 28 countries. Hundreds of people were involved in the process, ranging from experts to our community but also people collecting signatures, running workshops to improve literacy about whistleblowers, people making documentaries. The level of participation was high, particularly in Italy, that has since become one of the leading countries of this initiative. Not all of our battles are about pushing for new policies, though.
M.F. — What do you mean?
A.A. — One of our recent ones surrounded the issue of denouncing the practice of unpaid internships in Europe. We have a lot of countries that turn a blind eye to the idea that students or young graduates have to work for free before getting a job. Belgium was selected as the worst country in Europe because 70 per cent of the graduates have worked for free for at least six months. We created a major campaign together with the European Youth Forum, which is the NGO representing all youth organisations and other smaller organisations, and we filed a case against Belgium at the Council of Europe. The case is still pending, but, in the meantime, we can see how some countries are changing their approach to the issue as they have started focusing more on unpaid internships.
M.F. — Other important battles?
A.A. — I can anticipate one of the next projects that we will be working on, which has to do with marijuana utilised for therapeutic purposes. We know there’s a lot of potentials for marijuana to mitigate some of the first symptoms of epilepsy and other pathologies. But, access to marijuana for therapeutic purposes is not entirely legal at the moment, which makes things much more complicated for patients. So we are considering helping patients to develop a major campaign and organise a European citizen initiative with the intent of asking the E.U. to legalise marijuana for therapeutic purposes all across Europe.
M.F. — What is your take on Greta Thunberg?
A.A. — Greta has been much more effective than any other group in raising awareness about the urgency of the climate transformation happening today due to human-made activities. However, she’s not a citizen lobbyist nor someone who wants to propose practical ideas towards the carbon policy problem. She’s using civil disobedience to increase momentum, but what she is lacking are solutions. The world today needs activists on the ground, able to mobilise society. But we also need people with technical expertise and skills to turn up those problems and come up with possible solutions. And that’s precisely the problem we want to tackle with The Good Lobby: we don’t have enough citizens lobbying in the world. Out there, we have plenty of groups of citizens and NGOs who have brilliant ideas and real policy solutions to avert climate change disaster. Here is where I think we should focus more on trying to make sure that our governments listen to our voices.
M.F. — I am personally impressed by Greta Thunberg’s achievements. Taking the world by surprise, she has managed to take to the streets millions of people asking for a new economic paradigm. However, we see how difficult it is to translate this incredible momentum into pro-climate policies.
A.A. — This is because we try to solve a problem that requires a long-term outlook, such as climate change with an instrument, politics, which is traditionally intrinsically short-sighted: politician tend to prioritise the short-term goal of being re-elected.
M.F. — How can we break this vicious circle?
A.A. — There’s a famous quote saying: “Every politician knows what he or she has to do but what they don’t know is how to be elected afterwards”. They all know what they should be doing, but if they’re not doing it, it is because of the political game. This leads us to our current democratic crisis, which is caused by the inability of the political process to provide real answers to our problems.
The problem is that politicians are not made accountable for their work. This is exactly what we want to change with Citizens’ Lobbyism.
BY EMPOWERING INDIVIDUALS TO BECOME ENGINES
THAT ARE ABLE TO MAKE THE POLITICAL SYSTEM RESPONSIVE TO THEIR NEEDS, WE CAN PUSH THE POLITICAL SYSTEM TOWARD THE LONG-TERM SOLUTIONS THAT
THE WORLD NEEDS.
By creating accountability and responsiveness, politicians, who are prisoners of the usual short-term logic and who are unable to embrace today’s challenges, would not be re-elected. I am profoundly convinced that by increasing the responsiveness of the system, we can improve the overall political class.
M.F. — On December 12th, in Brussels, The Good Lobby will assign The Good Lobby Awards. What is this initiative?
A.A. — We assign awards to a variety of categories: individuals, citizens, NGOs, media outlets and many different groups who are currently making a difference in our society, but whose impact is not particularly well known. The time has come to celebrate those stories. Last year, when we opened the call for applications for The Good Lobby Awards, we received around 200 projects from all over Europe. One of the projects was from a young Swedish lady called Greta Thunberg. Obviously, at the time, nobody knew what was about to happen. She was one of our finalists, but she didn’t win the prize. There are thousands of other stories out there that people don’t know about, and that should emerge!
M.F. — Maybe you can pick and tell us one of the stories among those 200 which you consider particularly cool.
A.A. — One of the most impactful stories from last year is that of two German students who decided that it was unfair for Interrail to be only open to kids from families wealthy enough to pay for it. So they created their own ‘Free-Interrail Lobby’, advocating for the European Union to allow every single kid turning 18 to receive a free Interrail ticket for two weeks. These brilliant young guys managed to sell the idea to a European Popular Party which put aside 600 million euros in the following European budget to pay for a free interrail for all 18-year-old Europeans. It’s a beautiful story: an extensive project initiated by two kids who succeeded because they managed to bring the right idea to the table of the right politicians at the right time. Another significant story deals with B-Corps.
M.F. — What is a B-Corp?
A.A. — In Europe, when you want to set up a company whose purpose is not mainly to make profits but to, instead, have a societal impact, you cannot do it. Our legal system states that either you have a non-profit organisation or you are for-profit. But what about somebody like ourselves or any other organisation who are voluntarily meeting higher standards of transparency, accountability, and performance, while trying to pursue a mission that goes well beyond making profits? Those companies are called B Corporations, and they are not yet recognised in Europe. We have two Italian companies that started instigating the Italian government and the European Union to change legislation. The idea is to open to these organisations that are developing a new alternative economic model, not only based on maximising profits, but rather on focussing on having a societal impact, which, in their eyes, in many cases, is a higher achievement thank simply making profits.
M.F. — Are ‘Good Lobbyists’ happier people?
A.A. — What makes us happy? Countless studies suggest it has only partly to do with money. One of the primary drives to happiness is ‘social bonding’ – the ability to connect with your community, whatever this may be, your neighbours, your fellow citizens, or any group you feel part of. One of the messages we always tried to convey through The Good Lobby since its inception, is that even if you do not want to lobby for somebody else, you should do it for yourself: it will force you to connect with your community, and you’re inevitably going to be much happier. So, to answer your question, yes, there’s a positive correlation between citizen lobbying and happiness — people who engage in society live longer. People who have more friends live longer. People who make a difference for others, and establishing stronger bonds with their community, live longer. Happiness is part of this story.
Text by Michele Fossi
Published in DUST #16 – “You and I will soon be dust”