COMMENT: PLATFORM; Lobbyists are not political dating agencies

Lobbyists perform a valuable service but the profession is in danger of becoming too inwardly focused, says Steve Bramall

Lobbyists perform a valuable service but the profession is in danger of

becoming too inwardly focused, says Steve Bramall

Do lobbyists make a difference? What makes a good lobbyist? And, post-

Nolan, do I regret leaving the Civil Service after 15 years - having

worked for two lobby companies and now joined a third within five years,

is my nomadic lobbying career a sign of unease?

The lobbying industry would not have developed in the way it has unless

it was providing a valued service, nor would so many organisations use

lobby companies unless they made a difference. Politics and Government

are complex areas, and just as companies need accountants, merchant

bankers and lawyers, so too do they need professional government affairs

advisers. Indeed, I am often surprised that many organisations never

think of using lobbyists, or feel that they can do without them. In this

respect, the lobby industry has failed to promote itself effectively,

and far too often it is on the defensive, trying to justify itself to a

suspicious media, civil service and political audiences.

The industry itself also has too narrow a view of what it can do for

clients. The focus of many consultancies’ work for clients is often on

delivering ‘contact programmes’ with parliamentarians, local politicians

and, occasionally, civil servants. This can be an important part of a

work programme, but it often seems to be the central part, with the

consultancy doing little else. Of course, clients need advice on who to

see and who not to see, but I am uneasy that the industry is too focused

on being a political dating agency and that, as a result, clients often

perceive that that is all we do.

This problem arises, in part, because the skills base of the industry is

too narrow. The vast majority of lobbyists come from parliamentary/

political backgrounds, with individuals often having no more experience

than as an MP’s researcher. Don’t get me wrong, this represents an

important element in any consultancy team, and it would be bizarre

indeed if a political consultancy did not employ people from political


But I can’t help feeling that lobby companies would benefit enormously

if they recruited more people from other professions and backgrounds,

with other skills and experience, such as lawyers and industrialists.

Many may not be political animals, but working with those who have

political flair and expertise, a consultancy that enjoyed such a broader

spread of skills would really add value to a client’s operations.

Increasingly, consultants should be recruited as much for their

expertise and experience - what they know, not just who they know.

Clients would then start to change their perceptions of the lobby

industry, and what they might use lobbyists for. Rather than using us

simply as the dating agency, lobbyists would be recognised as skilled

practitioners able to contribute to a client’s commercial objectives by

providing detailed strategic and analytical advice on political issues,

policies and trends. Then lobbyists need not be quite so defensive about

their role and value.

There can be no doubting the need for, and value of, a professional

government affairs industry. But it needs increasingly to move away from

the ‘gin and tonic’ method, to a service more firmly based on skills and

expertise and less on personal contacts. I suspect that only then will

the industry become fully accepted, and its potential fully realised.

Steve Bramall is executive director of The Waterfront Partnership

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