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Lobbying for change: Alberto Alemanno’s recipe to empower citizens

27 September 2017

News and media


Dissatisfaction with organised politics is growing across the democratic world, so how can we involve more people in politics to increase trust and reduce this democratic deficit?

Professor Alberto Alemanno believes that encouraging the rise of ‘citizen lobbying’ can re-engage people’s interest in politics and shift the balance of power away from big corporations.

Professor Alemanno will be in Melbourne on October 23rd as keynote speaker at the ANZSOG/National Regulators Community of Practice forum Shifting Sands: Regulating in the 21st Century, to talk about citizen and stakeholder engagement, the regulation of lifestyle risks and how the rise of citizen lobbying is changing the regulatory landscape.

Citizen lobbyists need to do more

He says that, to become citizen lobbyists, citizens must go beyond merely voting, clicking – to share, like, donate – or signing a petition. They need to use a range of tools to set the agenda and prompt policymakers to act, or react to a policymaker’s agenda with potential solutions.

In other words, citizens – due to the growing levels of education and free time at their disposal – should act as countervailing forces to political and societal trends that are not driven by the public interest. He says key challenges today include aggressive marketing campaigns targeting young people and the addictive nature of social media applications.

His work, including his new book Lobbying for Change, aims to encourage the growth of citizen lobbying around specific issues, using formal channels such as requests for access to documents, administrative complaints, and public consultations, and informal, unconventional ones such as online petitions and campaigning.

“The genius of citizen lobbying is that it complements rather than undermines representative democracy. At a time of growing disenchantment with the democratic system, citizen lobbying transforms mounting distrust into an active democratic virtue,” Professor Alemanno said.

“Lobbying is a phenomenon that has been hijacked by corporate powers, and has a bad reputation as something for the few, not the many. We need to demystify lobbying and ensure that everyone is empowered to do it. By countering the undue influence of a few special interest groups citizen lobbyists can act as equalisers.

In the field of public health, Professor Alemanno sees citizen lobbyists as a counterweight to the corporate interests which have normalised behaviours such as consumption of alcohol and junk food, and marketing to children.

The successful Mexican campaign for the introduction of a soda tax, which began with the efforts of Alejandro Cavillo and Elaine Kemp to highlight the damage sugar consumption was doing, and ended with a 17% drop in soft drink consumption in Mexico is an example of a campaign driven by citizens and eventually adopted by mainstream politicians.

Another example is the rapid emergence of a transnational online campaigning communities – as symbolised by Get Up in Australia, MoveOn in the US, or WeMove in Europe– capable of swiftly mobilising millions of citizens to pressure decision-makers on matters as diverse as trade agreements, civil liberties, and consumer issues.

Turning micro donations into real movements

The rise of the internet provides huge opportunities for citizen lobbyists to successfully organise people and distribute information and has lowered one of the barriers to engagement by making it easier to make ‘micro donations of time’ by liking causes or signing petitions and then transforming them into real movements.

“This growing phenomenon of Internet-based mobilization is making it much easier to organise groups around specific issues, which can partially replace unions which are falling in numbers, and churches, which are losing influence,” Professor Alemanno said.

“There is a paradox though, that the control of these online platforms is in the hands of very few actors, and that – due to their business model – they are not always acting in the interests of the people who use their platforms.”

Professor Alemanno says that, in the area of regulation of alcohol, junk food and gambling, there is a consensus building that regulation cannot be successful if regulators do not consider how targeted people respond.

“When we focus on the individual we need to be aware that we can be irrational in daily behaviour and can be extremely vulnerable to our environment of choice. Only a combination of policy instruments, for example, legislation, regulation, economic incentives and fiscal measures, such as minimum pricing and subsidies, may attain policy objectives

“When it comes to the regulation of lifestyle choices, while law is not a panacea in shaping behaviour, it is a powerful instrument to change the social norm of what is accepted and what is not. Thus, in tobacco control, it is the legal framework – from taxation all the way to plain packaging pioneered in Australia – that has led to denormalising of consumption which has resulted in a record low tobacco prevalence in recent years.

He says that the challenge is greater in the area of alcohol consumption, where in western countries it is not just consumption, but harmful consumption of alcohol which has been normalised by the relevant industry and a complacent society.

The role of academics in citizen lobbying

Professor Alemanno believes that academics must step into the political arena and have a vital role to play in supporting the efforts of citizen lobbyists.

“We have seen the growth of specialisation detach the academy from the rest of society. Insulation of research has been justified by the argument that you can’t get close to the object of research without compromising your independence. I’ve never been convinced by that, I think it is important to test your ideas in a different way and to get involved in debate.”

He also says there is an under-acknowledged phenomenon of academics who monetise their independence to serve corporate interests by accepting payment for research.

“There is a taboo around debating this, but the practice exists. It is diffuse, accepted and hidden with very little accountability, yet it results in academic papers which can be published without acknowledgement and which can then influence the policy process, court cases and judgments on issues.”

“I think academics should do pro bono work on behalf of citizens, they get the chance to test their ideas and also can equalise the tools their corporate opponents have”.

Professor Alemanno says that the techniques of citizen lobbying can be applied across a range of issues, and in societies beyond western democracies.

“It is certainly easier to rely on the lobbying instruments in liberal democracies, where public authorities are expected to respond to you. But they can also be mobilised – often with more creativity – in illiberal democracies and authoritarian states.

He says examples of citizen-driven public health campaigns from South America and Russia show that grassroots lobbying can work outside of western democracies.

“In every society we need to encourage forces capable of countering phenomena that do not pursue the general public interest, but rather threaten it.

“At a time of growing disenchantment with the democratic system, citizen lobbying transforms mounting distrust into an active democratic virtue.”

Professor Alemanno will be speaking at the upcoming Regulators Forum, Shifting Sands: Regulating in the 21st Century, taking place 23 October 2017. Register now.