The availability of Parliamentary information on the Internet will never
replace the lobbyist’s monitoring role says Paul Barnes
Sitting in the pub last week a young colleague dropped a minor
‘I’ve been thinking,’ he said. ‘You know that a lot of our work is
monitoring Parliament and Whitehall for clients? Well, what are we going
to do when all this information goes on the Internet ?’
He’s got a point. We lobbyists thrive on information. It’s a commodity
which many lobbying companies sell to clients through the formal
monitoring of Hansard and other similar publications. Many of our
contracts with clients are purely for monitoring and even our broader
government relations work will invariably include an element of
monitoring support. So how much of a threat to lobbying companies is the
growth of access to this information through the Net ?
A great deal of political information from government departments and
party offices is on the Internet already and it can only be a matter of
time before Hansard joins it. The governments of Australia and Canada,
whose Parliamentary systems are largely based on our own, currently give
free access to all of their Parliamentary proceedings.
On the surface my colleague was right to be worried. We could see our
monitoring units change from being profit centres to being cost centres.
But the truth is somewhat different. In the first place it is highly
unlikely that the Internet will give us free and complete access to
information from Westminster and Whitehall. Hansard is a valuable
commodity for HMSO, which is in the process of being privatised. It is
unlikely that they will ever distribute this information for free on the
Internet. My guess is that the subscription we will all have to pay will
be just as high as it is now.
It is also clear that there are certain important documents that will
never get on the Internet. Hansard is fine for learning what has
happened in Parliament, but you need the Order Paper if you want to know
what’s going to happen. But this is a daily publication of no archive
importance and is unlikely ever to get on the Internet.
So the information may be on the Internet but it won’t be cheap or
complete. But there will still be a huge amount of information on there.
Ironically, it is this wealth of available information that will
continue to ensure that our monitoring units have a role.
There are two challenges which I am convinced that only dedicated
monitoring units can meet. The first is to identify the relevant
information, filter out the rest and ensure that what results is
comprehensive. And this must be done quickly. The longer it is left, the
less useful the information is.
The second challenge is interpretation. Information is only useful if
you know what to do with it. Although the Internet will give you much of
the raw data, you need to be able to recognise what is just for
information and what is a spur to action. You need to know how to
respond effectively and when not to respond at all. It is the knowledge
of the Parliamentary system that gives dedicated monitoring units the
So will the Internet mean the demise of lobbyist’s monitoring units?
Probably not. But it might just demonstrate to clients how difficult
effective Parliamentary monitoring is. Then they might remember what a
bargain they get in the first place !
Paul Barnes is a director of GJW Government Relations