How MPs and Whitehall can use social media to shine a spotlight on lobbying

Summary

With lobbying back in the spotlight following recent headlines, can Whitehall and Westminster use social media to bring much-needed transparency into policy making?

One of the things that continues to disturb me is how the structures and processes within our political and state institutions are struggling to deal with the pressures that people’s use of social media is bringing to bear. The protests on the weekend of 1st June 2013 filled Puffles’ Twitter feed with text, footage and photographs from various places and locations covering various causes.

A few years ago following the student demonstrations of 2010, I put it to a very senior police officer that demonstrators’ use of social media meant that protestors on the ground were able to use social media in a manner where they could get far more accurate information far faster than any state communications set up. The way people have grown their social networks is largely on trust. Over the past few years, people have learnt who and which sources they can trust, and which ones need further corroboration. This means that they can make split second decisions on whether to run with something on a hashtag or not. Citizen journalists and citizen photographers who have built up good reputations over the past few years are able to live-report from events. Their numbers have increased to such an extent that whenever a major news story breaks, there is likely to be one of these people there at the time rather than a traditional corporate journalist. This then creates a challenge for the latter: How do you establish a new ‘unique selling point’ if you’re less likely to be the person who was live-reporting on the ground at the time?

What’s this got to do with lobbying and transparency?

Trust – and trust at the time events are taking place.

In Cambridge, we’ve been lucky with Julian Huppert MP. In his political and professional life, we can fine out who he’s meeting, when he’s meeting them and where because he posts such information up just before he goes into such meetings. It’s not a perfect set up, & one that for MPs who do similar, is still ‘work in progress’. What is the technological set up that allows MPs to post the most essential pieces of information with the minimum of hassle but that allows them and their constituents to see who their MP has been meeting and on what issues? One of the next steps for me would be to have a system that allows constituents to see what the headline issue/agenda is, and possibly submit questions and comments for the MP to throw into the meeting, with their private office staff filtering the best ones. In such an environment of copy-&-paste campaigning, it’s quality, not quantity that matters when crowd-sourcing ideas. ie, not whether lots of people seem to back it, but rather, is it any good & does it stand up to scrutiny?

“Hang on Pooffles, who are these ‘lobbyists’?”

I first stumbled across the term ‘lobbyist’ when I was still at school – back in the mid 1990s when it felt like there was a political scandal every other weekend. It was the reported activities and the repeated naming of the lobbyist Ian Greer in the cash-for-questions scandal that made me wonder what a lobbyist was, how they managed to access politicians in the way say, my mum & dad could not, and why they had this sort of access in the first place.

What do lobbyists do?

The best place to get an overview is from is the APPC – the Association of Professional Political Consultants. The bullet points in that link explain what they do. Interestingly, the APPC itself was formed as a result of the cash for questions scandal, as their history page shows.

How do they do it – why would anyone in power want to meet a lobbyist?

For a whole host of reasons. One of them may well be that they represent someone – person or an organisation that will help a politician achieve their political objectives. This doesn’t automatically place this in a pejorative sense; a charity that has large public support may wish to commission a professional lobbyist to make the case to MPs because he or she has long-standing personal relationships with them. It’s one of the reasons why many former politicians end up with lobbying firms or in organisations where your political connections come in handy. One advantage of hiring former MPs or current members of the House of Lords is that they have parliamentary passes. They don’t have to queue up like the rest of the public. Because thousands and thousands of people have such passes (I used to have one myself when one of my policy areas was covered by a piece of legislation going through Parliament), it’s not so straight forward to keep a track of who has what levels of accesses. (That’s not to say it is an insurmountable problem – it can be resolved).

 

“Oh…so you can hire a politician then like the stereotype says!”

No. That would be illegal.

But there needs to be far greater transparency about some of the softer side of lobbying – in particular some of the trappings that come with being in Westminster and Whitehall. For example the receptions and dinners that you might get invited to or that are available.

Actually, to be fair the system is much more open and transparent than in days gone by. Both societal and technological changes have allowed for this both nationally and locally to me too. I had an interest in politics during my late teens but would not have dreamt at asking to go along to a talk at Cambridge University or in Whitehall on issues of politics or public policy. For a start I wouldn’t have known where to have looked. Today? I go regularly because I know where to look and have established good personal relationships with people in the institutions that host these events. Not only that, whenever I find out about these things, more often than not I publicise them to wider audiences through social media.

“Let’s say money was no object and I wanted to go about lobbying for something or make some noise about my political beliefs. How could I go about it?”

If you didn’t want to use a professional lobbyist, you could go about setting up a new organisation – like a mini-think tank. You could then follow this up with:

  • Hiring staff – in particular those that will ‘look and feel the part’ in Westminster
  • Send said staff to every other event going in Westminster – it raises your profile
  • Analyse and respond to the debates and discussions going on in whatever areas you are interested in
  • Host events yourselves, inviting the great and the good to be guest speakers, putting on good food and fine wine at the same time
  • Publish reports and pamphlets
  • Network bigtime – in particular with up-and-coming political researchers, civil servants, academics and journalists
  • Get quoted in the media
  • Get yourself invited onto a Whitehall group of ‘key stakeholders’ in your interested policy area

…and then grow. And grow. I’ve seen examples of organisations from both centre left and right wing political perspectives do this. It’s not a party political point, it’s a Whitehall and Westminster political cultural point.

You can see how in a pre-social media age, the Whitehall and Westminster jungle became a bit of a bubble – albeit a very big bubble. One of the impacts of no longer having ‘jobs for life’ is that people have been able to move around the jungle. One minute you might be a journalist. Then you might move onto a communications consultancy. Then you might be hired as a government press officer or communications manager. Or you might go into party politics yourself.

What’s thrown a big spanner in the works of the jungle is people’s use of social media. Whitehall’s initial response ‘culturally’ was to lock down and see social media as a threat. One of the reasons I left the civil service in 2011 was because I saw the use of social media as an opportunity to increase transparency in policy-making with a view to improving it. Not only that, I saw it – and still see it – as an opportunity to drag politics up from its very low standing within the public’s perception.

“Isn’t this just an excuse to get MPs and peers to use Twitter?”

Not at all. For me the public is demanding greater accountability, greater transparency and greater propriety from holders of public office. Unfortunately we’re seeing too many high profile examples of the precise opposite. Plus ça change?

The challenge for holders of public office is trying to find the best method of increasing their accountability, transparency and propriety to us, the people – but in a manner that also matches their disposition. What I mean by that is finding out what method of communications works for them. For some, it might be Twitter. For others, it might be blogging. For a group of politicians with similar outlooks, it might be setting up a group website where they can post their thoughts as and when. For others, it might be working with an existing organisation – for example a charity that they are a patron of.

The most important thing for me is that people who ask reasonable, polite and substantive questions get reasonable, polite and substantive responses that not only answer the questions put, but are also seen to answer the questions put. One of the big complaints about ‘professional politicians’ (I don’t like that term) is that they don’t answer questions put to them. Rather they respond by rephrasing the question to mean something else completely, and then provide the response to the question that they wanted to have been asked. (Or rather getting the soundbite out that their political adviser from HQ said was the line to take that needed mentioning in the media).

Authenticity counts

One of the great things social media allows constituents to do is to get an understanding of what their local politicians are like as people. It also makes it far harder for a command and control operation to function 1997 style. A recent example of this was when a number of MPs from one political party all tweeted the same soundbite within minutes of each other. People picked up on it and shredded both the MPs (because they used language & tone most of the MPs did not normally use) and the political party’s HQ (for blatantly trying to co-ordinate politics by soundbite with a line that was politically controversial).

What other things would shine a light on lobbying, and aid transparency?

Things like:

  • Data on meetings; which ministers and civil servants are meeting which organisations and individuals & how regularly?
  • How many ‘key stakeholder groups’ are there, for which policies, who sits on them and how regularly do they meet?
  • Transparency on all party parliamentary groups – in particular on following the money: Who provides the administrative services, for how much and ultimately who pays for it? (In particular, who is the person who decides ultimately that funding an APPG would be a good idea and signs off the budget for it?)
  • Going beyond “I refer hon and rt hon members to my entries in the register of interests” – especially when in that register of interests (especially in the House of Lords) there are massive conflicts of interests – e.g. voting for legislation that will ultimately lead to their further enrichment. Hansard could help with this, for example having a hyperlink directly to the specific entry that the MP or peer is referring to. (That’s before we’ve even looked at the possibility of barring MPs and peers from voting on proposals that they are likely to benefit from financially)
  • More formal, regular and higher profile public questioning of executives of firms that have massive outsourcing contracts to deliver public services.

One of the other things it’s worth looking at if you regularly use public transport or are at a shop with a big magazine stall, is to flick through some of the politics and current affairs magazines – and look at who is advertising in them. What does that tell you about the firms advertising in there? (And why don’t you see them advertising in more mainstream publications?)

Food for thought.

This entry was posted in Business economics and finance, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Charities and Big Society, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Social media. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to How MPs and Whitehall can use social media to shine a spotlight on lobbying

  1. Rattlecans (@rattlecans) says:

    What about civil servants Puffles? They make decisions on our behalf quite a lot. I reckon we could be doing wi info on why they made the decisions they did, what processes they used. I’m thinking of say, selling an island… there was a big row here over how that was done recently.

    Civil servants work for us, make decisions for us, yet so often, it’s like they have little chiefdoms of power. Not sure how, but that has to be sorted out and maybe social media would be one way to open it up, let us see what is going on, why so we can decide if we are willing to continue wi what they do or demand changes.

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  4. Richard Percival says:

    I was an “in house lobbyist” for the GLC and then the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in the 80s. We regularly met with MPs and peers to help programme opposition to Government legislation. It was a perfectly legitimate exercise, to my mind (I remember all the voluntary sector lobbyists were astonished at cash-for-questions: we would just ask an MP or peer to ask a question and explain why, and they would do it for free). The problem is that there is too much naive cynicism around – people, naively, would think that we were paying them or whatever if such meetings were routinely tweeted. I know the answer is general education, not secrecy, but there is a bit of a “how do you get there from here” issue.

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