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Moving Targets: Are Lobbyists Getting Closer to Achieving the Goal of Professionalization?

Moving Targets: Are Lobbyists Getting Closer to Achieving the Goal of Professionalization?

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

Many of my close friends are lobbyists, people who attempt to influence government action. These individuals work hard, generate useful insight, and genuinely help their employers; nevertheless, social media (SM) and popular polling research suggests that they and others like them who lobby are not ranked highly among respected occupations; frankly and transparently, they are ranked near the bottom of most ratings[i].  From my perspective, there is a contradiction in public perception and what I have experienced that requires further analysis, and even better, reconciliation, if the goal of professionalizing lobbyists is achievable.

In this second of a two-part series (you can read the first part entitled “Professionalizing Lobbying and Developing Professional Lobbyistshere), I explore how far along the professionalization journey lobbyists have gone. In the cases where my analysis suggests they have not achieved their aims, I also consider how far they need to go and how to get there. I do this by referring to the five criteria that define professionalization, which for brevity’s sake, I present again here more concisely:

1) Collective Service Orientation – This criterion seeks to determine whether lobbying has a clear, defined scope (the public can easily tell what is, and isn’t, lobbying activity) and essential social purpose (i.e., its reason for existence). Practitioners and the general public should strongly agree about why lobbying occurs and how it 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.

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 to enter the profession.

3) Abstract (specialized) 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 is learnable, not intrinsic to people in general, and can be codified in what is known as a “body of knowledge” (BOK). A profession’s BOK is derived through scientific inquiry and scholarly learning, is constantly tested, extended and updated through research and applications of the scientific method to develop new knowledge.

4) Generalized knowledge of other, adjacent fields by demonstrating mastery of basic competence of related professional fields – Even though every profession has a BOK of its own, it must also draw on knowledge and skills from other adjacent, complimentary 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.

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 need a collective to represent a profession within public policy debates and discussion. Some associations are given an explicit mandate by public policy-makers to serve as an entry check, licensing, certification or accreditation agent, thereby reducing government’s need to provide day-to-day or operational oversight.

My 2016 Lobbyists’ Professionalization Scorecard

So how do lobbyists and the lobbying community perform when assessed against these five criteria that, at a minimum, constitute a modern day profession? I have summarized my views in the scorecard below. Though I have no doubt there will/should be debate about the rankings, I do hope it provides a realistic and reasonably accurate sense of where lobbyists and lobbying stands.

Table 1: Fleisher’s (2016) Scorecard on the Professionalization of Lobbying and Lobbyists

Criterion Progress Positive (Driving) Forces Adverse (Impeding) Forces What Needs to Happen Next
1. Collective Service Orientation It has a long way to go
  • Powerful voices of State-level societies being heard.
  • Recognition by public of high influence.
  • Some practice leaders are speaking out publicly.
  • The numbers of individuals lobbying federally is large.
  • Lobbyists have more, better tools than ever to target, disseminate their messages.
  • Few powerful voices consistently heard at Federal level.
  • General Public still misunderstands, viewing lobbyists as corrupt or captured by selfish interests.
  • “Bad” lobbyists, scandals get ample media attention.
  • Public sees lobbyists as unethical, dishonest.
  • Perceived, un-leveling influence of money.
  • Convene task force on the “public benefit” of lobbying.
  • Create, communicate cases of lobbying creating high net value.
  • Develop competitions (like essay contests) whereby the public can extol its importance.
2. Position of the Occupation in the Labor Force For veteran practitioners, it is nearing the mark.
  • High salaries for the best lobbyists.
  • High demand for proven practitioners.
  • Occasional members of strategic decision/TMT table.
  • No/minimal entry barriers.
  • Few standard entry points.
  • Few formal career paths or ladders inside organizations.
  • Salary surveys.
  • Develop model job descriptions at different levels of  experience.
  • Minimum reqd. entry standards.
3. Abstract (Specialized) Knowledge It has a long way to go.
  • New journals dedicated to lobbying have arisen since Y2K.
  • New practices and methods are being developed.
  • Increased number of practitioner/ trade books, white papers,
  • Growth in lobbying dedicated web-sites.
  • Nowhere close to critical mass.
  • The ethics of some of the new methods and practices need scrutiny
  • (Relatively) Few researchers or research centers.
  • Little global/cross-national knowledge fertilization.
  • BOK needs development, consensus.
  • Building of model curriculums.
  • Design competence assessments & develop standards.
4. Generalized Knowledge of Other, Adjacent Fields. It is nearing the mark.
  • Recognition by lobbyists of need to learn adjacencies (psychology, sociology, info systems, data science, etc.).
  • Many lobbyists have advanced degrees.
  • Some fields holding cross-over meetings w/ (SM &  IT, in particular)
  • Other fields often don’t recognize info and knowledge needs of lobbyists.
  • Some hanging lobbying shingles lack high school diplomas.
  • Lobbyists often don’t have dedicated ways to monitor adjacent developments.
  • Create shared meetings/websites/SM groups.
  • Develop communication (in person mtgs., webinars, etc.) + news sharing mechanisms.
5. Active Participation in a Formally Recognized Membership Society It has a long way to go.
  • Groups like NILE rising to meet needs for professionalization.
  • Some state level groups growing, strong on ethics, self-regulation.
  • Checkered history of national level assns.
  • Few have been self-regulating, monitor compliance w/codes, ethics or standards.
  • Public sees lobbyists as dishonest, unethical.
  • Empower oversight, governance group to represent all.
  • Code of conduct, performance standards, & self-regulatory body.


Any field of occupational endeavor would need to pass all five of these to be reasonably assured professional status.  In my view, lobbyists and the lobbying field are on the journey to professionalization, but are not hitting the mark vis-a-vis any of the five criteria. Three (i.e., numbers 1, 3, and 5) of the five criteria demonstrate that there is still a lot of work to be done to pass the professionalization hurdle, while two others (2, 4) show that it is in sight of the goal line. I will expand briefly upon the three criteria I view as needing the most work below.

Our history as a nation is replete with examples of advocates pushing for government action on behalf of the well-being of a wide and large variety of different interests. Considering that lobbying is 1) practiced by so many individuals[ii], 2) has been established since (arguably, before[iii]) the founding of the country, and 3) is explicitly mentioned in the Constitution as a right of all citizens, it is surprising that it hasn’t progressed further as a respected profession.  Lobbyists are recognized by officials within the political process as providing them the information they both need and seek to help them make better informed choices (in the choice of bills, laws, policies, regulations, etc.). As such, they are a unique and valuable form of information specialist to public policy actors, and the process would, at least in theory, not perform effectively or efficiently in their absence[iv].

Specialized knowledge is a major deficiency.  Few educational institutions, particularly at the post-secondary level, have formal and ongoing programs for developing future lobbyists. This doesn’t mean that future lobbyists can’t take complimentary programs in government, public policy or public affairs, but few of these are targeted to educating lobbyists[v].  Unanswered questions remain:

1) Who would be qualified to instruct in these programs (e.g., what credentials should they have?)

2) What content and subject matter should their curricula consist of (i.e., it should be drawn from an agreed-upon and evergreen BOK, something that may not exist in the US today[vi]), and

3) How and what will be the minimum performance required for students of the programs to demonstrate competence and assure potential employers of their quality?

Last but not least, lobbying has not been well-served to-date by existing membership societies at the federal level. Who speaks for those full-time lobbyists working in Washington? And if one group can be identified, do they speak with clout, integrity and a track record of consistently serving the public’s best interests? The “record” is much better at the state level where it is more regulated – though there are nearly 50 different versions of lobbying laws. The states have published codes of acceptable/desirable conduct, articulated minimum educational and entrance requirements[vii], developed oversight mechanisms, and facilitated the (professional) development of their members.

Lobbyists and organizations like NILE who seek to advocate on their behalf have a great opportunity to move the field and its actors closer toward the goal. I’ve observed it is a worthwhile investment of resources in an evolutionary process that needs to be done deliberately and engender wide participation.  I hope others will join with me in making lobbying professionalization a reality.



[i] A Dec 2015 Gallup poll had them ranked dead last, even below Members of Congress and telemarketers, for honesty, ethical standards.

[ii] JA Thurber estimated in 2009 that >40k individuals met narrow (f/t, GA directory-listed) definitions of government relation responsibilities, over 87k w/broader definitions, and that >150k people total were lobbyists.

[iii] There are numerous examples in our history books of individuals in the colonies persistently petitioning the British authorities and in particular–the King, on behalf of different causes.

[iv] I am unaware of any systematic, comparative studies that looks at the outcome effectiveness of policy making in (state) governments where lobbyists are severely restricted in their interactions with government officials versus those where they do not experience these restrictions. But, would legislators (for example), make better decisions and policy by having interacted much less, if at all, with full-time public policy advocates? I doubt it, but empirical research would be preferred in this case.

[v] Two outstanding and longer-running exceptions to this rule are found, unsurprisingly in Washington, DC, more specifically at American University’s Public Affairs & Advocacy Institute and Campaign Management Institute, and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management (which, for purposes of disclosure, the author served for over a decade on the founding dean’s advisory board); nevertheless, there are few others like this elsewhere in the US.

[vi] The applied field of lobbying is not well served by a critical mass of researchers and scholars, or refereed/peer-reviewed publication channels. Few doctoral programs graduate the next crop of educators, and few students are made aware of (the limited) options for studying lobbying in their educational/vocational pursuits.

[vii] Though the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution protects the right of all citizens to speak freely, to affect decisions and petition/seek redress from government, most citizens do not use this right. Those people who perform it full-time and are compensated for their efforts better be able to demonstrate different, unique, more highly valued qualities that those of part-time/occasional citizen lobbyists. If everyone can do it, it cannot be considered a profession!

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