The Good Lobby

Alberto Alemanno highlights the potential of harnessing citizens’ professional skills for social good, through stronger links with civil society organisations.

What if civil society organisations had the same expertise and talent as corporations? What if all interests had equal access and representation in the policy process? What if corporations and NGOs could team up in pursuit of the public interest? These scenarios may sound farfetched, but they shouldn’t. This is the conviction behind The Good Lobby, the first advocacy skill-sharing platform connecting the expertise of citizens – be they professionals, academics or students – with civil society organisations, acting in pursuit of the public interest.

In contemporary democracies, a civic empowerment gap is emerging. Political power is increasingly distributed unequally between citizens, particularly in relation to policy-making, where business interest groups are strong and civil society is weak. Businesses have the capacity to invest big money in their lobbying activities to protect their interests. On the other hand, non-profit organisations promoting citizens’ diffuse interests, such as health, consumer protection and human rights, are underresourced. They are also exposed to organisational precariousness – particularly since the economic crisis, many smaller NGOs have found themselves understaffed, with limited budgets and a constrained ability to represent their base.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that corporate interest prevails over public interest in the policy-making process, and the traditional polarisation between public and private interests grows. But what can we as citizens to do help transform this dynamic?

In Europe, as anywhere else, there is a common misconception that the only two options for making a difference in our communities are to vote and to run for office. But there is a third, less understood, way to make an impact: lobbying.

The term itself seems remote, and conjures images of big business and public affairs firms. But thanks to the information revolution, technology and emergence of the ‘do-it- yourself’ ethos, lobbying is no longer a prerogative of well-funded groups with huge memberships and countless political connections.

Citizen lobbying might involve, either individual actions, such as writing to your officials or posting a provocative blog piece online; or collaborative action, such as when skilled volunteers or workers team up with civil society organisations.

Whether you call it pro-bono activities, skill-based volunteering, ‘volunteering 2.0′ or even ‘skill-sharing’, the idea that students, academics and professionals (young and old) can make use of their knowledge and expertise, on a voluntary basis, to improve their societies is not new, but there is an urgency now to tap into the potential of this kind of partnership.

The fact is, the majority of people in Europe today possess socially and economically valuable skills of one kind or another, though they may not be aware that they could be harnessed for greater benefit.

Across the globe, lawyers, graphic designers, communications specialists, accountants, business students and many, many more (including carpenters, plumbers and other trades) are dedicating a portion of their unpaid time to assist non-profits to work for important social causes. Volunteering might come in the form of writing a business plan, drafting a press release or running a social media campaign. The key is to channel individuals’ skills and talents towards causes they believe in.

Skill-based civic engagement and democracy

The connection that remains to be made is explicitly linking skill-based volunteering to democracy. The Good Lobby wants to make that connection, acting as a catalyst in the policy space by forging unconventional partnerships to lobby for the public interest. By enabling anyone, be they a student, academic, lawyer or other professional, to provide assistance to NGOs advocating for important social issues, The Good Lobby intends to unleash the potential in each us to contribute to a more equal representation of interests in the policy process.

This is not about “good” vs. “bad” lobbying. It is about including citizens in the most important decisions affecting their lives, making sure that everyone can sit around the table and have a say. The Good Lobby aims to provide all of them, as well as their employers (i.e. companies, law firms, consulting, etc), with valuable skill-based volunteering opportunities… opportunities to get involved well beyond traditional forms of engagement, such as donating occasionally or signing a petition.

As we bring all these actors together, an incipient and innovative form of active democracy might timidly emerge. This is our mission at The Good Lobby, but we need you to make it happen.