Nuala Haughey: After a full year in operation, the legislation behind Ireland’s lobbying transparency regime is being reviewed by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
This is an important troubleshooting opportunity, as glitches in the law or its implementation can undermine its contribution to increased transparency in public decision-making.
Put simply, the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 was introduced to shine a light on “who is lobbying whom about what”. If any of these three Ws are not captured accurately, we will have a distorted impression of how policy is actually influenced.
The core of the lobbying system is an online database – interest groups and others engaged in lobbying must file online returns of their activities to this searchable register three times a year. The database went live in September 2015, and as of October 2016, more than 1,400 people and organisations have registered, and more than 7,329 returns have been uploaded.
In its submission to the departmental review the Standards Commission makes 23 recommendations that would strengthen the operation of the Act by, among other things, closing off loopholes, creating new offences, and enhancing its own powers.
When it comes to the “who” of lobbying, SIPO has identified categories of organisations and individuals which currently fall outside its reporting obligations, but shouldn’t. These include informal coalitions of business interests which join forces on issues of mutual interest and unpaid office holders in organisations such as chairs and board members.
Insider lobbying through expert and advisory groups
Another area of activity which merits attention as part of the current departmental review relates to what may be called “insider lobbying” – that is the influence of private interests on policy-making through membership of expert or advisory groups. Government departments and public bodies routinely establish expert groups, taskforces, advisory committees etc. made up of public officials and invited external experts or stakeholders.
These groups may be set up to offer policy advice because internal expertise is absent or a range of stakeholder views is sought. By their very nature, such groups provide a forum for interests, including private interests, to achieve privileged access to policy-makers – think of the well documented influence of the former Clearing House Group of the International Financial Services Centre.
Under the current lobbying regime, interactions within these groups are not captured on the lobbying register – but this exemption is provided on the basis that the groups behave in a transparent way. Formal recommendations from such groups can carry considerable weight, shaping government policy in areas of vital importance to citizens.
These bodies must adhere to a Transparency Code prepared under the Act, which means publishing details on their parent public body’s website about their activities, membership (including sub-groups), terms of reference, agendas, minutes etc.
Transparency blind spot for expert and advisory groups
So how is this working out? The answer is that this entire area is a blind spot. One year after the Transparency Code came into force, there is no official list of the expert or advisory groups to whom it applies.
According to the Standards Commission, it is not clear which groups have committed to adhering to the Transparency Code, and whether or not those groups that have done so are complying with it. So what can be done about this?
The Standards Commission recommends requiring public bodies to inform it before the end of each lobbying return period of the bodies that are meant to be adhering to the Transparency Code. But is this in itself enough?
The OECD recently stated that “an emerging risk to the integrity of policy-making is the capture of advisory groups by private interests to exert undue influence”. 
The table below highlights OECD research findings that Ireland is among 79 % of OECD countries that allow lobbyists to be members of expert groups in a private capacity. The same percentage, including Ireland, do not require a balanced composition on such groups in terms of private sector and civil society representatives.
Nuala Haughey is communications director with the Social Democrats and was previously a researcher, analyst and project manager on democratic accountability issues with TASC.
She is an award-winning former Irish Times journalist with 15 years' experience reporting from Ireland and the Middle East on human rights, social affairs and immigration.
She was a consultant in human rights and communications for Irish and international NGOs and European Commission.
Nuala has a law degree (LLB) from the Queen’s University Belfast and a Master's in journalism from Dublin City University.