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GOVERNMENT TAKES FURTHER STEPS TOWARDS TRANSPARENCY IN PUBLIC LIFE, CRITICS CALL FOR MORE

Lobbying remains unfettered

THE GOVERNMENT, as a part of its effort to regulate lobbying on the national and local levels, presented its draft law on the public's participation in the legislative process on November 6.
However, experts say that the measure is unlikely to help much in the fight against the lack of transparency and the strong position of hidden interest groups.
Those who had expected the law to regulate lobbying, as it is understood abroad, might encounter disappointment, as the legislation does not cover links between lobbyists and public officials.

THE GOVERNMENT, as a part of its effort to regulate lobbying on the national and local levels, presented its draft law on the public's participation in the legislative process on November 6.

However, experts say that the measure is unlikely to help much in the fight against the lack of transparency and the strong position of hidden interest groups.

Those who had expected the law to regulate lobbying, as it is understood abroad, might encounter disappointment, as the legislation does not cover links between lobbyists and public officials.

The main goal of the measure is to make sure citizens and organisations have a voice in the process of law-making.

"The public should have the right to influence the state's decision-making in the field of generally binding legislation," said Ján Hrubala, head of the government's Anti-Corruption Unit (OBPK), which has put the new legislation forward.

"We want to institutionalise the public's involvement in these processes by introducing a state duty to publicise drafts of legislation, enabling the public to submit its comments, and obliging the decision-making bodies to deal with them," Hrubala said.

If the measure were approved, all draft legislation proposed by ministries and other top bodies of the administration would be published on the government's website. The drafts would also be automatically sent to all organisations and persons who ask to be included on a newly created register of recipients kept by the government. The public would then have the right to comment on the planned measures.

In a White Paper released along with the draft, which is required to state the motivation behind a draft law, the OBPK argues that although governmental decrees already grant the public the right to participate in the administration's legislative process, these rights need to be covered by law. According to the OBPK, currently the "government can simply cancel [the decrees] at any time and with relative ease."

However, the draft leaves it up to the rules of legislative procedure, issued by the government, to regulate the way in which received comments should be evaluated and dealt with; it does not directly oblige administrative bodies to take them into account.

"This is the result of a compromise," said Hrubala.

"Our initial idea was to have it all spelled out in the law itself, but there was opposition to these suggestions that the rules need to be more flexible. However, we are saying in the law that the government has to have these legislative rules and, through them, has to enable the public's access to the legislative process," he added.

Hrubala specified that the opposition came from the ranks of a working group made up of representatives of the state administration as well as the NGO sector.

"I don't remember who specifically was against it," he said.

Top state administrative bodies are not the only ones whose rule making will be affected. The parliament will also have to let the public add its remarks to legislation drafted by MPs.

The proposed regulation is most specific when it comes to local and regional municipalities. If a sufficient number of inhabitants were to share a common objection, their representative would have to be heard by the decision-making bodies deliberating on the objected measure.

It seems the measure may also add some confusion to debates about lobbying in Slovak society.

The OBPK's White Paper calls the proposed measure a legal framework for "lobbying in the legislative process on the national and local level". Hrubala himself called it a "draft on lobbying in the legislative process".

However, different people seem to have different understandings of the term "lobbying".

"This does not regulate lobbying, as it is understood abroad - especially in the US. It does not deal with the relationship between a lobbyist and public officials," said Pavel Nechala, a lawyer with the Bratislava office of the watchdog organisation Transparency International.

Despite the OBPK's attitude, the term is not used at all in the draft legislation.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to lobby means to "conduct activities aimed at influencing public officials and especially members of a legislative body on legislation".

The Slovak law does meet that definition. However, - it fails to regulate the status of professional lobbyists, an issue experts say also needs to be addressed.

"Something definitely needs to be done in this field. We already have professional lobbyists, and they would only benefit," said Nechala.

"If for no other reason than because the public perceives lobbying and corruption as synonyms," Nechala added.

"I would very much welcome a good law, because a good law would help fair, transparent, professional lobbyists," said Jan Levíček, head of CEC Government Relations. His is the only Slovak firm that openly offers lobbying services.

Levíček pointed out that improper legislation may damage those lobbyists and preserve the existing "grey zone", which failed politicians and other people with ties to the political elite use to push through the particular interests of their clients.

Insiders have told The Slovak Spectator that, due to the lack of legislation, the real number of professional lobbyists is impossible to estimate. Most such lobbyists currently present their activities as public relations services, consulting, or strategic advisory services.

CEC's Levíček confirmed this observation.

"Some PR agencies are starting to indicate that they are doing something in the field, but the lobbying I have seen them do usually consists of downloading a new draft of legislation and giving it to their clients. That's not lobbying," he said.

According to insiders, there are a number of fields in which professional lobbyists are already active - including heavy industry, pharmaceuticals, arms production and trading, and state procurement.

Yet OBPK boss Hrubala says he sees no need for legislation dealing with professional lobbyists.

"We don't need a law that would just say something is legal, when it already is legal," he said.

"I have spoken with several people who are lobbyists, and they told me they are not in favour of any restrictive regulation, and that they like the current status," Hrubala added.

Levíček said that the status quo serves the interests of those involved in shady dealings. "If someone appreciates a grey zone, he or she can hardly be an honest lobbyist," he said.

Expert studies also point out that, in order to effectively deal with corruption - one of the main challenges facing the country today - it is crucial to define and regulate professional lobbying.

"It's necessary to have in place clear and effective control mechanisms that would watch over the activities of both the lobbyists and the lobbied," concludes a report called The Institutionalization of Lobbying as an Anti-Corruption Tool, released in October 2002 by the MESA 10 think tank.

Hrubala claims that the administration aims to tackle corruption by putting public officials under stricter control, rather than restricting the activities of lobbyists.

"We have come to the conclusion that any legislation that would oblige lobbyists to keep a record of their meetings, report them, and so on - such legislation makes no sense in Slovakia.

"We are set on a different course; for example, we require high-ranking state officials to keep track of their meetings," he said.

Experts say that, for the time being, all efforts to reduce corruption and cronyism in Slovakia, through the public's involvement in the drafting of legislation or through the regulation of professional lobbyists' activities, may remain futile.

What they say is needed most of all is legislation keeping public officials from making decisions on issues in which they are personally involved and through which they may directly benefit.

"If you look at a certain hierarchy of what is necessary, you find that the law on conflict of interest is certainly at the top. It gives you a much needed basis on which you can build," said Transparency International's Nechala.

Although the debate about the adoption of such a measure has been ongoing for months, and Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic declared back in June that the administration is putting together a specific draft, there is little to indicate an effective law on conflict of interest will be adopted in the near future.

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