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Professionalizing Lobbying and Developing Professional Lobbyists

Professionalizing Lobbying and Developing Professional Lobbyists

By Dr. Craig S. Fleisher, NILE member and Editor/Author of the forthcoming
Handbook of International Corporate and Public Affairs, SAGE, 2017.

Most fields of occupational endeavor eventually reach a point in their evolution when they face an existential question, that being whether they have achieved their societal potential and served their greatest purpose. For many fields, that question is answered by them achieving professional status in the eyes of the broader publics of which they are ensconced. Groups like doctors, engineers, lawyers, university professors and accountants, among others, are widely accepted as professions. The practitioners in these fields proudly and humbly wear their professional labels. This labeling brings me to the central focus of this article, those individuals performing lobbying activities. In this first of a two-part contribution, I’ll ask whether lobbying is a profession, and are lobbyists professionals.

As an individual who has mainly been in academe for three decades and who studies, sits on editorial boards of scholarly journals, researches and instructs globally about the field, and who also happened to spend half a decade leading a national association representing government affairs practitioners among other related fields, I would prefer answering in the affirmative. The empirical realities of the context surrounding lobbying and lobbyists today would suggest a contrary response. In this piece, I will add a little structure to my argument by sharing a standards-based scheme I have written about since the early 1990s that is useful in determining the professionalization of an occupation [1]. In my follow-up piece, I’ll make the natural leap implied by the professional model shared here and apply these standards to contemporary US lobbying.

To be viewed as a profession, an occupation and its practitioners must meet or exceed at least these five standards. They are:

1. Collective service orientation.

This criterion seeks to determine whether the occupational practices in consideration have a clear, defined scope and essential social purpose (i.e., its raison d’etre). If they do, practitioners and the general public should be in strong agreement about what they are, and in particular how the practice produces positive net benefit. Meeting this standard means practitioners understand their obligations to the welfare of others in society, and routinely perform roles that extend beyond their own self-interests.

For lobbying to meet or exceed this standard, it would suggest that at minimum, lobbyists:

a. Routinely recognize, understand and meet their obligations to their clients/employers, stakeholders, and especially those decision makers in the public policy institutions where they practice.
b. Develop, maintain and widely communicate an ethics codes or standards of ethical practice for its members to adhere. A prominent example of meeting this standard would be medical professionals. They ascribe to modernized versions of the Oath of Hippocrates — which according to current editions of the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics remains in Western civilization as an expression of ideal conduct for physicians. These guidelines explain the professional’s obligations in his/her dealings with others and the responsibilities inherent in these relationships.
c. Empower those representing the profession, i.e., individuals acting in its governance, in using the codes of ethics or practice as adjudicatory guidelines for standards of acceptable conduct. In this manner, any “bad apples” can be formally removed from the profession and its practice. Obviously, groups that do not self-police their members’ activities will thereby either diminish themselves in the publics’ view of the occupation or abdicate their governance to others outside the occupation. These are typically government groups/agents who will be asked or compelled by the public-at-large, particularly when it perceives harm being done to them in order to rein in these unruly practitioners and practices.

2. Position of the occupation in the labor force.

“True” professions are routinely in demand as career paths and true professionals are sought out for positions of decision-making responsibility. Certain stakeholder groups, particularly students and educators, are usually aware of the vocation and the characteristics that make for its best prospects. Future practitioners generally have to compete for entry positions in the profession. Additionally, there are many similarities among the “job descriptions” of people practising in the field and clients of the profession can describe with some clarity the kinds of skills they expect demonstrated by potential hires.

Professions ordinarily retain privileged positions in a nation’s total labor force. The public recognises, has confidence in, and as such, is willing to remunerate members of the profession for their services at a level commensurate with their status. Salary data will provide additional evidence that professionals ordinarily earn compensation far above occupations not having achieved similar professional status.

For lobbying to meet this standard, lobbyists must:

a. Meet formalized standards or preparation and competencies, like holding a particular degree showing evidence of mastering agreed-upon concepts and principles of the practice, passing an “entry” exam, or gaining some form of licensure or certification through examination or similar arms-length assessment mechanisms.
b. Once in a profession, its practitioners are given opportunities to use their unique knowledge, skills and abilities (aka, competencies) to influence matters of public importance. There is a general recognition among stakeholders outside the profession that these practitioners play a valuable role in contributing to organizational success.
c. Gain competence, new abilities, and additional experience performing the profession’s roles and responsibilities. These become useful in achieving ever-higher levels of competence as the profession evolves to meet its changing responsibilities to the public over time.

3. Abstract (specialised) knowledge.

The critical knowledge held by any particular body of professionals is unique to that held by any other vocational or professional bodies. Professionals are viewed as “experts” in displaying competence possessing and applying a specialized set of skills, knowledge and/or abilities. The specialized knowledge ascribed to the profession is learnable, not intrinsic to people or “the arts” in general, and can be codified within a “curriculum” or similar pedagogic structure.

Quite often this unique set of concepts, methods and theories will comprise what is known as a “body of knowledge” or BOK. A profession’s BOK is derived through scientific inquiry and scholarly learning. It is also constantly tested, extended and updated through research and applications of the scientific method to the development of emergent and new knowledge.

For lobbying to meet this standard, lobbyists must:

a. Gain mastery of the BOK by undergoing rigorous preparation, which for most professions occurs at the graduate level of recognized, leading universities. Most professions also have numerous venues for providing education and training in its required abstract knowledge areas. Because a BOK exists, practitioners in a profession can have their knowledge and learning measured by assessing them against existing standards derived from the BOK.
b. Undertake continuous in-service training (i.e., through self-learning, mentoring, coaching, or internships) and personal growth after completing one’s formal education. Many professions require regular assessments of updated and growing knowledge. These are commonly accomplished through its professionals documenting how they are meeting 3-5 year continuing education requirements.
c. Pursue ongoing awareness of emerging developments that are significant to lobbying practice, typically by attending professional meetings/conferences/events, reading scholarship about the practice, and/or engaging in regular, formalized networking channels.

“Top” professionals will do more than just maintaining awareness, but will also make contributions back to their fellow professionals by participating in meetings as presenters, working with researchers to push the field’s boundaries forward, or sharing articles they write about their views and experiences. In this way, new, best and/or leading practices can be widely and regularly disseminated. Some professions recognize these top professionals through competitive selections in annual award or recognition programs, or “Fellows”-types of events.

4. Generalized knowledge of other, adjacent fields by demonstrating mastery of basic competence of related professional fields.

Even though every profession has a literature or BOK of its own, it must also draw on knowledge and skills from other, adjacent fields of practice. An example of this would be how professional nurses must have a basic understanding of what medical doctors do, and have enough knowledge so that they can deliver complimentary support and assistance to those doctors. All professions interact within networks of other professions and vocations and are interdependent within the institutionalized contexts of society. As such, professions often share a variety of knowledge bases generally associated with the professions.

Lobbyists interact with a number of key stakeholders in performing their roles. These would include their organizational clients, public policy makers, regulatory or agency officials, lawyers, communication and media professionals, among others. To be a professional, an individual would need to “speak the language” of adjacent professionals, and communicate effectively with them in areas of overlapping roles.

For lobbying to meet this standard, lobbyists must:

a. Have regular access to developments in the practice of adjacent fields. This education is typically offered through advanced educational institutions, although it does not necessarily have to come from a university. The generalized knowledge held by professionals enables them to efficiently and effectively utilize their specialized knowledge in a way that makes the profession relevant to recipients of these professionals’ services.
b. Engage in regular exchanges of ideas with adjacent professionals and occupations in their value chains, usually done via means of formalized networking, reading the adjacent field’s publications, or attending significant professional development meetings or events sponsored by/for the adjacent profession.

5. Active participation in a formally recognized membership society.

No modern profession of which I’m aware exists outside of a collective body of individuals who provide the governance structure and direction for its individual members. Public bodies (i.e., governmental agencies and/or institutions) typically require a collective body to represent a profession within public policy debates and discussion. Some associations are given an explicit mandate by public policy-makers to serve as a licensing, certification or accreditation agent, thereby reducing government’s need to provide day-to-day or operational oversight.

For lobbying to meet this standard, lobbyists must belong to membership societies (like NILE intends to be) that serve a number of important, public tasks such as:

a. Providing for a means of informing and regulating member behavior (e.g., limiting access into the profession, issuing sanctions to individuals who abridge standards of practice or ethics);
b. Updating and upgrading member knowledge and skills; providing networking opportunities to allow professionals to share knowledge and practices; and/or
c. Serving as a central means for documenting and transmitting the BOK and the standards for measuring performance against it.

For those of you who have read this far, I am hoping that you will have already formed an even- keener sense of whether professionalization is an important aim for lobbyists to pursue. I also hope you are developing a better informed opinion about where lobbying stands on its journey toward professionalization. In my follow-up piece to this one, I will share my own and others’ views [2] about where we are at, and how/whether we might want to push forward the professionalization agenda.


[1] I have published several refereed articles detailing at greater length these standards as they apply to a variety of public affairs roles. A good example can be found at Fleisher, C. S. “Do Public Affairs Practitioners Constitute a Profession?.”Proceedings of the Fifth Annual International Public Relations Symposium. 1998.

[2] As a long-serving editor and/or editorial board member of several scholarly journals in lobbying-related fields, including the Journal of Public Affairs, Interest Groups and Advocacy, and the Handbook of Public Affairs among others, I regularly learn about research concerning lobbying and adjacent government affairs/relations practices. My academic and practitioner colleagues are constantly updating the field’s scholarship, a potentially positive sign for professionalization that I will address in my subsequent article.

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