Undoubtedly, lobbying is one of the most controversial and misinterpreted social phenomena. Due to the strong tendency to abuse lobbying, both by professional lobbyists as well as others representing their own interests, very often, lobbying is qualified as an illegitimate activity – imposing decisions serving some particular interests. Unfortunately, there are not a few cases where even corruption is involved, though unfortunately, this is very seldom documented and prosecuted. As a consequence, lobbying – by definition understood as interest representation – and representing an essential component of democracy – is generally regarded with great suspicion.

Aware of the potentially negative impact on democratic decision-making processes, some countries (less than 20 worldwide) have introduced special legislation – requiring lobbyists to enter official registers, and requesting that they report on their activities. Unfortunately, there is no clear evidence that this has essentially improved the quality of lobbying practice – even not in the USA, having the toughest lobbying legislation.

The answer to the question of what should be done to improve the quality of lobbying, lies in improving the rule of law, fighting corruption, and developing an advanced political culture among all members of a society.

It is therefore not surprising that many – including some high-ranking political figures around the world – do not want to deal with lobbyists, particularly not openly. They believe that this is a negative activity that harms wider social interests, as well as their own reputation.

The negative nature of lobbying is also strongly present in the media, which has further a major impact on the bad reputation of this important activity among the general public.

This is essentially absurd because the constitutions of all democratic countries guarantee citizens the right to represent and defend their interests – which is the substance and essence of lobbying.

It should be underlined that lobbying is banned only in an undoubtedly undemocratic system, as North Korea, but that of course does not mean that only a few people (who support the regime) could still lobby there – while everyone else is not allowed to.

Representation of interests is as old as human society, while lobbying forms and techniques have evolved and changed at different times and in different socio-political environments. According to the 2022 OECD report, lobbying has changed significantly in the age of the Internet and electronic networks, opening up possibilities for new forms and instruments of influence for legislators and other decision-makers. This, unfortunately, also enables new forms of abuse, i.e., illegitimate and non-transparent lobbying. At the same time, it also allows smaller entities, such as NGOs – which usually fight for legitimate social interests, to achieve greater influence than they once had.

It is more essential than ever for decision-makers – and legislators in particular – to be familiar with all aspects and the facts of the issues they are addressing. They must understand the motives and reasons of individual social actors for a proposed solution or the adoption of a certain regulation. To this end, it is important that they are aware of the different arguments and practices in other countries, and this is most often presented to them by representatives of the organizations concerned, their experts, and professional lobbyists. This is why it is important not to give up lobbying activity, but at the same time, of course, to make sure that it is carried out legally - transparently, possibly also legitimately, and even ethically.

In the USA, there is already the fifth generation of legislation requesting from lobbyists detailed reporting on the content and objectives of lobbying, and even details about the price of their services (on average, they are 3 to 10 times better paid than their European counterparts). However, many problems with lobbying transparency have not yet been resolved. As a result of President Obama's tightening of demands on lobbyists, the number of lobbyists on the register dropped from 12,000 to 9,000, while lobbying funding remained unchanged (around $3 billion per year). This means that many continue lobbying, but declare their activities as consulting, etc. More recently, there have been more registered lobbyists in the USA.

Several American presidents promised to introduce more order in this area during their campaigns, and at the start of their term in office, but the prevailing perception remains that none of them have really succeeded.

What does it mean? Can we conclude that lobbyists are very difficult to manage, or are they approached in the wrong ways by governments and political parties? In both cases, the answer is yes, but we have not yet got to the bottom of the matter.

The truth about the nature, meaning, and effects of lobbying is quite complex; unfortunately, there are quite a few lobbyists who are willing to neglect the social interest and try at all costs to persuade decision-makers to introduce measures harmful to society. This means that some of the lobbyists are also prepared to use corruption.

Unfortunately, there are also some decision-makers who, due to their own interests (including bribes, monetary, or other forms), are willing to contribute to the adoption of socially harmful decisions.

Let us mention some of the biggest cases where holders of specific business interests have caused serious harm to humanity through systematic and effective lobbying on a global scale:

  • The tobacco industry has delayed the adoption of measures affecting smoking levels for several decades – causing 100 million premature deaths in the 20th century. Even today, this figure revolves around 8 million annually.
  • Global warming, as a result of human irresponsibility, has caused irreparable damage to our planet, causing future generations to suffer – something that has not stopped big capital from preventing and delaying necessary reforms.
  • Activities related to preventing excessive obesity are also missed and limited due to resistance from the big capital – around 2.8 million people die from being overweight globally.

Unfortunately, there are still many similar cases, albeit smaller, and this only proves that big capital manages to pursue its greedy and society-damaging goals with the help of unscrupulous, corrupt lobbyists who help them convince socially irresponsible decision-making politicians to make socially harmful decisions and are undoubtedly appropriately "rewarded" for this. In doing so, they often use formally neutral scientific studies and the support of various NGOs to articulate relevant arguments, for which they are, of course, appropriately "rewarded." With the frequent inertness of the general public and divisions between political parties, such a strategy of big capital is most often successful.

This means that lobbyists are often abused (unfortunately, often with full awareness of what they are doing), and the question arises of what needs to be done to prevent this from happening—at least not so often. Unfortunately, when we talk about lobbyists, state legislation, and self-regulation with codes of ethics from lobby associations, we cannot ignore the conclusion that both are not enough, as experience at the global level shows. As we have already pointed out, lobbying can only be abused under conditions where societies in some way tolerate this kind of deviation from fundamental social norms and values.

The problem is that both lobbyists' actions and their clients identities often remain undiscovered, and the guilty parties go unpunished. Sometimes at least some partial information indicating corruption comes to light, but unfortunately, this is not enough to bring the persons involved to face the law. This further strengthens the public belief that lobbying is corruption.

However, it must be made clear that from the moment we are dealing with any form of corruption when we are lobbying, we are no longer talking about lobbying, but about illegal action, i.e., crime. And this must be prosecuted, and those responsible must be punished accordingly. Only under such conditions can lobbying maintain the status of decent, professional activity, which is subordinate to the rules and values that apply in every democratic society and state governed by the rule of law.

The latest example of corrupt lobbying by Qatar in the European Parliament is sad, but the effective action taken by the Belgian judicial authorities, who found in the apartment of the Vice-President of the EP, a suitcase of around EUR 400 000, which was to be received to introduce a favourable entry regime for citizens of that country into EU Member States, is to be commended. This case raises the issue of lobbying by diplomats who are not obliged to report on their contacts with EU officials, but who are bound by the Vienna Diplomatic Convention.

However, having defined what is not and what lobbying is, below we can make a very clear distinction between the following three categories of lobbying:

  • Legal lobbying, where no one breaks any law.
  • Legitimate lobbying, where lobbyists respect all the provisions of their codes of ethics.
  • Ethical lobbying, where lobbying activity is in no way contrary to societal interests.

In short, not every legal lobbying is also legitimate, nor is it necessarily ethical.

On this basis, a relationship could be made between the corrupt abuse of lobbying and the categories of lobbying just mentioned as a criterion for determining the democratic nature of a society. It is probably superfluous to point out that a highly democratic society does not tolerate abuse of lobbying, and this is only a marginal phenomenon (perhaps 5–10% of lobbyists), and everything else is legal lobbying, reaching a level of legitimate lobbying of at least 60–70% of contacts, and for ethical lobbying, one would expect 20–30% of contacts to be recognised. These are proportions that are not based on any statistics, that is, they need to be taken with reserve. We only offer them to illustrate the proposed model, but there are undoubtedly big differences in the real practice of individual countries, and the relationship between the three categories of lobbying depends on the degree of democracy and transparency of lobbying activity in each country.

Very few countries in the world can claim that they have managed to completely clean up the lobbying practice, but it is an important achievement if the overwhelming majority of lobbying takes place legally, most of which is also legitimate. However, how much lobbying activity is considered ethical depends not only on legislation but also on the level of political culture and rule of law in a country.

As early as 2015, the international, non-governmental organization Transparency International published "International Standards for Lobbying Legislation – Towards Greater Transparency, Integrity, and Cooperation," where it set out the following three fundamental principles that very well summarize the essence of lobbying activity:

  1. Lobbying is a legitimate activity and an important part of the democratic process.
  2. The public interest requires transparency and integrity in lobbying, as well as diversity of accounts and contributions.
  3. Regulatory measures to achieve these objectives shall be proportionate, fit for purpose, and shall not impede individuals' right to form associations or to communicate requests to the government.

The OECD report provides an overview of lobbying transparency in three branches of government in 41 countries: full transparency is recognised in all branches of government only in Austria, Lithuania, Germany, Peru, and Slovenia. Transparency in only one branch of government is found in 11 countries, and in no branch in 13 countries. It is quite surprising that among the latter are all the Scandinavian countries that are otherwise known for their transparency. This is undoubtedly also a question of the methodology used in the study. If it is ethical and legitimate lobbying, it is sometimes acceptable for lobbying action to take place discreetly, while the public is informed only of the final results. Slovenia's favourable ranking is undoubtedly gratifying, but it is probably primarily a consequence of the high level of normativism shared with Austria and Germany. Interestingly, lobby laws have been adopted widely in the region of SE Europe: Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia. Overall, it is estimated that none of these countries has solved key lobbying problems by adopting the law.

The report also gives an overview of what sanctions are foreseen in each country for violators of lobbying law:

  • Disciplinary and administrative.
  • Civil law (e.g., financial penalties).
  • Criminal law sanctions (e.g., imprisonment).

Of the 20 countries (with comprehensive lobbying legislation, including the EU), most of them, i.e., 16 have introduced the first category of sanctions, 10 have an additional or independent second category measure, and only 6 have criminal law sanctions. It is difficult to judge what is most effective, as lobbyists' behaviour is influenced by several factors, but without a doubt, the severity of sanctions and their actual application are not left without effect.

Slovenia has only the first two categories of sanctions envisaged. Almost 20,000 lobby contacts have been registered in the last four years, of which only 32 have reported offenses, the overwhelming majority of which resulted in just a warning.

During 2018–2021, a total of 19,780 lobbying contacts were registered in Slovenia, including:

  • 10,739 performed by the legal representative of organizations.
  • 6,574 by a lobbyist engaged by the interested organisation.
  • 2,966 by an elected representative of the organization.
  • 401 contacts were made by registered lobbyists.

This means that in these 4 years, registered lobbyists made a total of only 2% of all lobbying contacts. It is more than evident that Slovenia is still at an early stage in the development of professional lobbying, as illustrated by the number of people included in the register of lobbyists: 76 in 2019 and 86 in February 2024. Moreover, the number of actually active registered lobbyists is significantly lower, and most of them are not professional lobbyists.

What are Slovenia's key lobbying challenges, and how should they be addressed in order to make this activity successful?

  1. The existing legislative regime clearly does not sufficiently encourage lobbyists to join the register.
  2. Reporting to the Anti-Corruption Commission in itself puts lobbyists in the context of corruption.
  3. The number of infringements looks unrealistically low, and the reprimand is likely not to be effective enough to prevent infringements. A number of countries have stronger sanctions for infringements.
  4. Some lobbyists are proposing to set up their own chamber and strengthen the recently established association.
  5. A code of ethics for lobbying should be adopted by the National Assembly as soon as possible.
  6. More needs to be done to reduce the negative connotation of lobbying.

Eliminating the negative connotation of lobbying is a challenging and long-term task in which lobbyists themselves should participate, especially through their associations, government bodies such as the Anti-Corruption Commission in Slovenia, experts, the media, and NGOs. The basic substantive focus of these activities should be that lobbying is a fundamental right of citizens to represent their interests and to pursue and, where necessary, fight for their interests—of course, legitimately and ethically. This must also become part of civic education, educational programs at secondary and advanced levels, and an integral part of political culture, because without lobbying, there is no democracy.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the presence of lobbying is increasing all over the world. Also, in modern conditions, increasingly intensive networking and electronic communications between different interested parties are also undergoing significant changes in lobbying approaches and methods, which are becoming more intense and therefore often more effective. At the same time, this increases the number of actors involved in each lobbying campaign, enables them to be fully informed, and encourages them to act on decision-makers through several channels, engaging actors from academia, the media, and NGOs. As a result, we can talk about the greater relevance and professional complexity of this activity, which all contribute to the growing role of lobbying in modern decision-making processes.