An Unregulated Pervasive Practice
Lobbying is often framed as an activity fueled by scandals, but it is also a legitimate activity, allowing different interest groups to demonstrate their views to public officials. In a strong democracy, this practice can strengthen the quality of policy-making and public debate and supports free speech. However, without the proper safeguards in place, unregulated lobbying can erode public trust as it can allow powerful groups with privileged access to further their interests at the expense of public good.
According to a 2015 Transparency International report, only 7 of the 19 European countries surveyed had lobbying regulations. Among the countries without regulations was Spain, where corruption has become a more prominent issue. Spanish citizens have historically distrusted their politicians, public officials, and business leaders, who have been frequently accused of corruption.
For Madrid, limited access to public officials and information on their activities meant that citizens have had only very few ways to monitor the conduct of officials and on several occasions, questions have been raised about public contracting.
A Simple, Accessible Register
To give citizens a window into who influences government decisions, Madrid launched a mandatory registry requiring lobbyists to disclose any meetings with public officials of the Madrid City Council. The registry – which became legally mandated by the 2016 Transparency Ordinance of the City of Madrid – is publicly available through an online platform. On the site, citizens can subscribe to receive alerts, view official calendars, and request meetings with their representatives.
The milestones in Madrid’s action plan, after the establishment of the registry, were to establish a digital registration system that is simple and does not place an excessive burden on those required to register as well as the promotion of the registry.
What makes the Madrid City Council’s lobbying registry stand out is its mandatory nature, distinguishing it from other registries that have been criticized for making participation voluntary.
Bringing Lobbying Out of the Shadows
By January 2018, in the first month of the platform’s launch, 50 stakeholders had already been registered, including companies, figures tied to professional consulting/law firms, associations, business organizations and foundations. Within its first six months, the participation among stakeholders grew even more, with more than two hundred lobbyists registered on the site. In 2021 the number of registered lobbies increased to over six hundred showing the consolidation of the process.
Prior to this reform, lobbying in Madrid was conducted in a legal grey area. Now, the public has a direct window into the previously murky world of lobbying. Its interactive features – such as the ability of citizens to request meetings with public officials and access their schedules – provide new avenues for citizens to participate in and monitor their government. In this way, the registry is an important step towards building a more inclusive local government.
With its success in Spain’s largest city, this initiative serves as a promising model for other governments to promote greater transparency and increase accountability through citizen monitoring. It also sends an important signal to other European governments about the importance of public lobby registers, setting a new standard of transparency in public decision-making. Summarized, the commitment represents the beginning of a substantial advance in ensuring the traceability of public decisions.