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