This fact sheet explains the process of lobbying. It provides information on the definition of lobbying and the appropriate methods for lobbying successfully. It outlines some information on how to work through a lobby group.
What is lobbying?
Lobbying simply means encouraging the adoption, defeat, or modification of laws or policies – at the local, national or even international level. A voter may wish to try to change an existing policy or situation, or to oppose a foreshadowed change. Lobbying involves giving views and information to decision-makers in order to influence them toward the action you want, which means contacting officials who make the laws and policies, communicating desires and opinions, challenging the arguments of opponents, and demonstrating wide support for an issue. It is vital to address your message to someone at the appropriate level to deal with your concerns. Depending on the scale of the issue, this could be anyone from a local councillor to a national leader.
Who can lobby?
Anyone can lobby. You don’t have to be a representative of a specific organisation. Even a citizen acting out of personal interest can call, write, or meet with decision-makers to give views and information on a particular issue or law. Remember however that certain non-governmental organisations are not permitted to lobby, so you must first check the particular position with your board or funding bodies. Even if your organisation is not permitted to “lobby”, you may be able to “attempt to influence” law-makers – which often involves similar activities.
The effectiveness of a lobbying effort depends on its timing, as well as other factors. Usually sooner is better, although late efforts can sometimes be successful. If you fail on the first try, it may be time to consider a longer-term campaign targeted months or years ahead.
Focus on one issue. choose one specific issue of interest to you and focus your lobbying efforts on that issue.
Research & support your issue. It is not enough to have strong views on a subject; you must support your views with accurate, up-to-date information from respected sources (publications, studies, statistics, case studies & witnessing, best models etc.). Be absolutely accurate. Prepare the facts about the impact of the problems you’re discussing.
Define and articulate what you want, including specific recommendations for change or action. Provide exact language for any proposals you want a decision-maker to support. Provide alternative recommendations, as a basis for negotiation. Obtain outside help from experts if necessary (lawyers / doctors / specialist groups). Prepare a short oral presentation (5-10 minutes). Be ready to present clearly and in a logical order. Remember: decision-makers may have no detailed knowledge of your issue. Let the truth speak for itself. Don’t exaggerate problems.
Create a clear strategy for approaches. Who: individual / national or regional group / delegation / minister or ministry? How: written / personal / telephone / formal / informal / group meetings / individual meetings? Where: local / national / regional / international?
Know the decision-making processes that apply. – This might be a local council, or a national parliament, or an international body. This will help you to track the progress of bills and make sure lobbying efforts coincide with key points in the process, and to avoid wasting time and energy on issues that are “dead”.
Know the decision-makers and identify who you want to approach. Find out who will help you or oppose you by researching the media, or asking organisations and other individuals. Don’t focus on a single target.
As well as concentrating on those who oppose you, make sure you also approach decision-makers who support your position, as decision-makers also lobby each other.
Find out each decision-maker’s position on the issue you are concerned about. If you aren’t sure, research the press or other media, ask community groups or other interested organisations.
Be up-to-date regarding the issues that you are trying to influence, and keep track of proposed legislation / votes / meetings that will affect your issues. An e-mail alert service can help.
Know when to lobby. Decision-making processes often continue throughout the year. Timing your lobbying efforts to have the greatest impact is important, particularly if you have limited time and resources. Knowing deadlines in advance gives you time to contact decision-makers before actions are taken.
Keep track of informal decision-making processes. Much of the formal decision-making takes place in committees or other informal meetings. You need to know when such meetings will take place and what will be discussed. Many informal meetings are open to the public.
Follow formal processes directly. If an informal meeting approves a decision, it still may have difficulties. An issue you support may be amended during formal proceedings, so it’s important to follow all formal processes in person, and be prepared to intervene where possible. Discover as much as you can about the decision-makers you intend to approach. Be aware of decision-makers’ existing alliances and partnerships, what particular interest groups influence them, their weaknesses and their opponents. Research their voting records, and their past positions, and remember to congratulate them for any efforts they have already made in support of your cause.
Contacting Decision Makers
When you are ready to enter the most important stage of lobbying, – contacting decision-makers, there are three options: talking in person, calling on the telephone, or writing. All three can be effective. The method or methods you choose will depend on the time and resources you have available.
- Face-to-face visits are probably the most effective form of lobbying. However, gaining access to decision-makers can be difficult. Make an appointment where possible. Whenever you meet in person: Be on time!
- Identify yourself, the organisation you represent and the issue you’re interested in, and briefly explain your position.
- Thank him or her for taking the time to see you. Stay polite and never make threats. Don’t be disappointed if your appointment is with another person. Decision-makers are often busy and staff members will pass on the information they receive to their superiors. Develop a good relationship with a staff member.
- Present a clear message. If you are with a number of fellow lobbyists, choose one person to speak for your group. Get your point across in the fewest possible words.
- Tell the decision-maker what action you’d like taken and why.
- State the effects you think your position will have and why the decision-maker should support your position.
- Use facts to support your arguments and leave supporting documents whenever possible.
- Be prepared for questions or challenges. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t be afraid to admit it. Say you will research the matter and report back.
- Be prepared to negotiate or compromise, where possible.
- Be prepared for rejection. If you efforts are rejected, try dividing the issue into sub-issues and approach decision-makers with these different components. Establish clearly who accepts what issues, and be prepared to change your objectives or to go a step higher or lower within a decision-making hierarchy.
- Be a good listener. Give the decision-maker or staff member a chance to express his/her point of view.
- Give special recognition to decision-makers who you know are on your side. Ask them for advice and help in reaching other decision-makers, and suggestions for ways to communicate the issue to their colleagues.
- Establish that they understand clearly your objectives.
- Ask for firm commitments for action from decision-makers: What will they do? When?
- If a decision-maker or staff member expresses opposition to your viewpoint, stay friendly so you will have access to them in the future.
When time is limited or travel impractical, you may need to contact legislators by telephone. Many of the points referred to above in relation to meetings apply here, but when contacting a decision-maker by telephone, it’s especially important to be brief, polite, and well prepared. The legislator may not have much time to talk, and your call will likely be one of many the legislator receives that day. State your issue in a way that leaves a positive impression.
If you have only a minimum of time and resources available for lobbying, writing letters may be the only practical way for you to contact legislators. Lobbying by mail can be effective, as it allows you to organise your views and information in a form that legislators can keep and refer to later. Be concise and clear. State the specific issue you are concerned about, why you support or oppose it, and what action you would like the decision-maker to take. E-mail or fax is nearly as effective as ordinary mail and more effective than a phone call. Avoid petitions. These are often the first resort of the inexperienced campaigner. Petitions are rarely noticed by politicians, and their reading is a mere formality. If you want to build up a mailing list, circulate a petition and copy the addresses – otherwise, don’t bother.
How to Work with a Lobby Group?
If you look, you will find other individuals and groups who share your position and may be able to help you in your lobbying efforts.
- A very effective method of lobbying is through collective action – that is, to create a network, coalition, or caucus, and work through this group. This will allow you to share information and expertise, and will provide moral and practical strength.
- Build a cross-sectional support network – that is, look at other groups that may not be specifically concerned with your issue, but whose mandate may support it. This allows you to broaden your contacts and influence.
- Formalise your group. – Give it a name (caucus / collective / network etc.) and have an established contact person.
- Establish agreement regarding your position and recommendations.
- Establish effective ways of group communication (e-mail or other distribution lists, list-serves, web-page etc.)
- Decide which members of your group will undertake lobbying, and divide lobbying according to their capabilities (for example: language / culture / national / region / expertise / specific contacts & experience).
- Keep track of all lobbying activity & distribute up-dates to members of the group. Who is doing what? When were certain actions taken? How was it done? What were the results? What are the next steps to be taken?
Things to Remember
- Send a thank-you letter after any visit or telephone contact. Restate your case briefly and provide any information you may have promised during your meeting.
- Make sure decision-makers are keeping to any commitments they have made.
- Analyse your lobbying efforts – your successes, your disappointments and what you have learnt. Share your findings with members of your group and with others.
- Decision-makers and elected officials do pay attention to the opinions of those who elect them. They need you too!
- Everyone knows somebody. Ask around for ideas. When you find someone to help, ask him or her to recommend others.
- Use the media. Even at a small council meeting will be members of the local press. If you have a favourable result or decision, inform your local or national media.
- The key to successful lobbying is “building a wave”. Use each little victory as ammunition for the next battle. Build layers of support and create a positive domino effect.
Other useful Information on Lobbying
Here are the most commonly used methods of communicating indirectly with politicians, in approximate descending order of efficacy.
Media Campaigns – Where the aid of the mass media is enlisted through persuasion of journalists and editors, planting of stories, advertising and other means. The mass media can have a powerful influence on politicians if it is skilfully manipulated.
Targeted Political Campaigns – Concerted efforts to influence elections in key areas are a powerful tool for political persuasion. Usually a few strategic electorates are targeted where a relatively small number of votes has potential to change the outcome. These become the centre of a strong campaign to support candidates sympathetic to an issue and oppose unsympathetic candidates. Usually they are outside the capabilities of individuals and tend to be mounted by large organisations.
Media Hits – These are media releases, special media events and other methods used to generate reports on specific issues of interest, usually with the intent to present your view of an issue in a favourable light. Politicians normally monitor the media in areas of relevance to their interests, and the effect of media hits may be enhanced by targeting of media in the representative’s electorate or other areas frequented by the representative. A favourite technique of organised lobby groups, media opportunities are nevertheless within the reach of the resourceful individual.
Seeking Professional Help – There are political workers who lobby for money or for the sake of their personal beliefs. One of these may be able to help you. Professional campaigners vary greatly in quality and price, and you should only consider this type of help if you can find a reliable and affordable one.
Through Community Organisations – You may be able to find, or establish, a voluntary organisation which supports your cause. Look for groups with similar interests which are likely to be sympathetic.
Through Party Organisations – Joining a political party in order to influence its policy is not recommended, although it can sometimes work and is included here for completeness.
Mass Demonstrations – Usually organised by unimaginative lobby groups. Mass demonstrations can get some media coverage, although the amount is disproportionately small compared to the effort of attending them. They are so common that politicians often don’t bother to look.
Forming Your Own Political Party – Sometimes this is contemplated by those who are frustrated with the political process. It is almost always a bad idea. Getting elected is usually very difficult, although it may appear easy to the amateur observer.
Before an Election – The knowledge of an impending election concentrates the political mind wonderfully. The months immediately preceding an election are usually the best time to approach your representatives. Don’t neglect the rival candidates. If your issue is perceived as a vote-loser, it might be better to wait until after the election.
Before the Issue Goes Public – If you know that an issue is about to emerge into the limelight, it is best to brief politicians before it happens. They appreciate being told in advance so they’re not taken by surprise when it breaks. This also gives you an opportunity to present your side of the matter first.
At Publicity Peaks – For any public issue which continues over time, there will be peaks in public awareness and concern, usually when new developments give rise to media coverage.
Before the Issue Gets to Parliament – If an issue is likely to involve changes to the law, it is desirable to lobby the Government and other parties before they make a policy decision. It is much easier to influence a policy which has not yet been formed, than one which is already set in place.
During Passage of Legislation – When it is too late to get in first, there is still an opportunity for input before the legislature has finished dealing with the matter. Your chances for success at this point may be small, but at least you can get some idea of the political landscape with which you must deal in future negotiations.
Generally – Lobbying may also be done when no particular issue is in the air, just to keep representatives aware of your views and of your interest in their performance.
Some Approaches in Presenting your Case
Sweet Reason – The straight out appeal to reason and commonsense is probably the best place to start. Many politicians actually believe that they are trying to build a better world, and it doesn’t hurt to give them a chance to do it. This tactic is also the best basis for a long-term campaign, as truth nearly always wins out in the end. Never lie about an issue. Your credibility is your most valuable asset.
Appeal To Ideology – When a representative is known to adhere to a particular political philosophy, it might be useful to frame your issue in terms of the tenets of that philosophy. This will usually only work if your point of view is compatible with the politician’s principles. Don’t try to bend their rules too far to fit your case, as this may offend. Remember that they know their own beliefs better than you do.
The Environmental Defenders Office (SA) inc, (EDO) is a non-profit community legal centre offering free advice to individuals and groups on all matters of environmental law. The EDO operates an advisory on Thursday evenings between 6-8PM at: 408 King William St Adelaide SA 5000 Fax +61 (08) 8410 3855. Appointments are necessary and must be made by ringing 8410 3833 or freecall 1800 337 566. It is not a substitute for proper legal advice. Important legal details have been omitted to provide a brief overview of this law. Contact the EDO or your solicitor for more detailed legal advice about your specific problem. This guide was funded by a grant from the Law Foundation of South Australia.