Lobbying in a ‘cheese sandwich’ culture
Prepare a five-minute talk. Eat in advance, so you can talk while the MP is chewing his cheese sandwich. Successful lobbying in the Netherlands: this is how it’s done.
Businesses and interest groups like to have a foot in the door with politicians. However, different countries have different lobbying etiquette. What is the Netherlands like in this respect? Does one immediately get to the point, or first talk about the weather? Does one bring gifts, or would that be considered crossing the line?
Hundreds of fulltime lobbyists ply their trade in the Netherlands and their numbers are growing fast. In addition, thousands of people are lobbyists in their free time. For instance, action groups trying to block the construction of a new motorway, or mothers who believe the local disco should close earlier.
Erik van Venetië is the author of Het Grote Lobbyboek (The Lobby Game), in which he reveals the secrets of Dutch lobbying culture.
"Lobbying has gone on throughout history. The Roman poet Ovid wrote a great book about how a man should seduce a woman. His tips can be applied to lobbying: for instance, that one should keep it informal, have the other person’s interests at heart, and try to influence the people around the decision-maker. In other words, do not approach the minister immediately, but start with his senior officials.”
However, Mr Van Venetië warns against becoming too intimate because therein lurks the danger of no longer telling each other the truth. “Seduce, but not conquer” is his advice.
The Netherlands has a centuries-old tradition of associations which, over time, began to engage in lobbying. In the healthcare sector alone, there are more than 300 lobby groups, employing about 6,000 people. These groups do not just comprise pharmaceutical companies; they also include the Orde van Medisch Specialisten (the medical specialists interest group), the Nederlandse Patiënten Consumenten Federatie (Dutch Patients Consumers Federation) and the Health Inspectorate which all have major interest groups to represent.
Lobbying consultant company Public Matters has carried out research into lobbying practices aimed at Dutch MPs. The politicians were asked how often they were being approached and which lobbying strategies they found most effective. More than half of the MPs spend over ten hours a week talking to lobbyists. Only one in ten refuses all contact with the lobbying sector.
The research also shows that personal contact is still the most effective lobbying tool, followed by letters and telephone calls.
According to Peter Van Keulen, lobbying instructor at Public Matters, the Netherlands has an open lobbying culture and MPs are easy to approach. However, the growing army of lobbyists means that effective techniques are vital.
"I train people to the point where they can hold an 'elevator pitch', to get the essence of their message across in five minutes. In other words, not to talk about the weather, relatives and your new car, and only to present the real message after about an hour, the way it’s done in Belgium and France. We Dutch are direct: Why are you here and what exactly do you want? When you meet an MP, don’t be alarmed if they are late. You should have the flexibility to present your pitch in ten minutes. I also teach my clients to eat in advance, so the MP can eat while the lobbyist presents his case.”
Mr Van Keulen believes the Dutch lobbying circuit is somewhat self-regulating. If a politician notices a colleague receiving rather a large number of gifts, he is bound to leak it to the media. Mr Van Keulen calls this the ‘ cheese sandwich’ lobbying culture. “You don’t go for a six-course meal in a fancy restaurant, but you make your pitch over a simple sandwich.”
Erik van Venetië says Queen Beatrix is the best lobbyist in the country. She has no formal power and is banned from publicly taking a position, but exerts her influence using subtle lobbying techniques. This was the case when Amnesty International was involved in a global campaign against the planned stoning of Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman sentenced to death for adultery.
"Queen Beatrix just happened to have the Nigerian president over on a state visit, and invited Dutch representatives of Amnesty International. This was highly exceptional, as Amnesty International had never been invited to a state banquet before. The invitation offered an opportunity to the Amnesty International director to privately discuss the issue with the Nigerian president. The conclusion to be drawn is that the queen is playing a subtle game by refraining from lobbying herself, but inviting someone to articulate her criticisms.”
The result remains secret, but this is how things work in the Netherlands. Mr Van Venetië believes that Dutch lobbyists abroad have a problem. He says that Dutch people are incredibly pigheaded and believe they are always right. This sometimes leads to embarrassing situations. Who can help these cloggies with a few tips?
Martijn van Tol / RNW
Photo credit: Voedingscentrum