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The world needs a new generation of citizen lobbyists

Elections aren’t sports events with winners and losers, despite how it is sometimes presented. As our nations grow increasingly polarised and political discourse more toxic, electoral victory – be it in Germany, or the UK – delivers no honeymoon period of societal acceptance.

Once upon a time, when communication and access to knowledge were limited, delegating the workings of democracy to elected representatives made sense. But things have changed. Today, a growing number of people not only demand, but also play, a more active role in political life through tiny participatory acts: likes, shares, petition signatures, donations.

Participation now happens with little cost or effort. And it means that a greater number of citizens – who have traditionally not participated – are becoming more politically active, or at least more open to persuasion by those that are. People have also become politically more promiscuous. Today’s digitally-empowered citizens express allegiances to multiple issues, without necessarily adhering to a political organisation. They may support causes that don’t traditionally fit, often without a political motivation.

If citizens are offering up a pluralistic, chaotic input into the political conversation, then there is an urgent need for new forms of participation that can make sense of it. People are disillusioned with traditional politics, but there is also a resurgence of interest in politics. The gap needs to be filled.

Five Stars

Mainstream parties are reluctant to innovate, and so this space has been left to two disparate forces which were the first to realise how the internet might affect political participation. On the one hand, we have self-proclaimed “direct democracy” movements from across the political spectrum. They include Italy’s Five Star Movement, Germany’s anti-Islam Pegida and the left-wing populist Podemos in Spain. They aim to capitalise on popular discontent, challenging the structure of representative democracy with direct democracy which establishes new channels of communication with their membership.

Five Star’s’ Beppe Grillo. EPA-EFE/FILIPPO PRUCCOLI

On the other hand, we have a new generation of political advocacy groups, including online petition platforms such as MoveOn or Avaaz, as well as the more community-oriented UK-based 38degrees and its European transnational version WeMove. These have shaped the emerging political space in between elections. In addition, there is a host of experimental initiatives across liberal democracies, including transnational movements like Pulse of Europe.

These new players have novelty and potential aplenty, but they struggle to translate their mobilising capacity into meaningful forms of political participation. Technology-enabled experiences of direct democracy haven’t proven to be viable responses to many of society’s challenges.

Too often they distort popular input to match an agenda as you can argue is happening with the Five Star Movement. Online petition platforms, meanwhile, are one-click wonders that may briefly make us feel better about ourselves but fall short on empowerment. They do not mobilise a citizen’s talents, expertise and desire to gain a voice in the policy process. Have you ever gone on to more direct action after signing a petition?

If there’s anything we have learned from recent political events, it is that citizens have a growing desire to contribute to the political debate, and that they deserve the means to do so. Research supports this claim by demonstrating that societies which enable citizens to be assertive and critical of public authorities tend to have governments that are more effective and accountable.

What better way then to render citizens assertive than to turn them into lobbyists? This is the provocative suggestion I make in my new book.

Interest groups

Now, while most people associate lobbying with “bad guys” such as Big Tobacco or powerful financial interests, lobbying can be a powerful force for good. This is illustrated by several successful instances of citizen lobbying in the UK, Europe and around the world.

Think of Max Schrems, the Austrian student who challenged Facebook’s use of private data and won. My own students have got involved too. They petitioned the EU Commission to put to an end to mobile roaming charges in 2012, adding their voice to a growing clamour that eventually forced a change in policy.

A citizen lobbyist taps into the repertoire of techniques generally used by professional lobbyists to promote a cause they care about deeply. It is more than than merely voting, donating, or signing a petition. Here, citizens set the agenda and prompt policymakers to act, or react to a policymaker’s agenda with potential solutions.

A citizen concerned about fracking might go to a protest or campaign meeting, but to think like a lobbyist means filing requests for access to documents to learn government plans, identifying key decision-makers to lobby, and preparing an advocacy plan to counter lobbying from corporate interests.

Citizen lobbying might sound like an oxymoron. Surely lobbyists represent the interests of the few rather than the many? That needn’t be the case. Organised interests, notably corporations, have historically monopolised lobbying, but the same factors which have prompted the rise of direct democracy movements and online petitions mean lobbying itself can be democratised.

Last straw? Sergey Granev/Shutterstock

Citizen lobbyists can take full advantage of opportunities for participation: public consultations; administrative complaints; and unconventional forms of campaigning. They can help level the playing field. By challenging the undue influence of special interests, they can help elected representatives to better identify the public interest of the many. We have seen this already on issues like whistle-blower protection or even soda taxes. Brexit, with its potential effect on millions of people around Europe, looks a prime target for citizen lobbyists of all political stripes.

At its heart, citizen lobbying is not really about giving everyone an equal voice but about delivering a plausible, legitimate form of civic participation that complements rather than antagonises representative democracy. Much of the political engagement we see is about rousing support or driving emotions; lobbying, by contrast, is rooted in practical efforts to meet achievable goals.

This article was originally published in French

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