Transparency in lobbying: the core principles of democracy

The "Transparent Laws" campaign calls for more transparency in legislation. What influence do lobby organizations have?

Who gets a say when the highway toll law is being drafted? Photo: dpa

It takes a long time for a law to come into force. And a lot of people can have their say along the way: employees in ministries, the federal cabinet, the Bundestag – but also experts and lobbying organizations. The "Transparent Laws" campaign wants to make transparent what influence this multitude of opinions actually has on the content of a law by sending a flood of inquiries to the authorities. With success: Last week, the federal government reportedly announced that it would make the roughly 17,000 corresponding documents available online.

"Transparent laws" is a joint campaign of the initiative Abgeordnetenwatch and the portal FragDenStaat. "Free with us thousands lobbyist papers from the filing cabinets of the ministries", it is called in the call. Because in principle citizens have a right to documents such as the draft bills to a law and the statements, which deliver Interessenvertreter_innen in addition. This is regulated by the Freedom of Information Act (IFG). The catch is that if you want information, you have to request it yourself from the relevant authorities.

To lower this bureaucratic hurdle, there is an online form on the "Transparent Laws" website: The request is written and only needs to be provided with the names of the questioners and sent off.

Within a week, the German federal ministries received more than 1,600 inquiries this way. Last week, he received a message from the federal government, says Arne Semsrott of FragDenStaat: the documents will be published instead of answering each individual question.

Before the Bundestag elections

So far, there has been no public statement from the federal government. A government spokesman told the site: "The federal government is aware of the request of abgeordnetenwatch.de and FragDenStaat.de. Its deliberations on how to create more transparency, if necessary, are still ongoing."

A spokesman for the Federal Ministry of the Interior explained that the federal ministries would gradually publish the statements from the current legislative period on the Internet. "It is important to us that this happens before the Bundestag elections," Semsrott said.

Arne Semsrott of "Ask the State".

"The ministries will not be able to get around our inquiries".

The action was preceded by nine months of research by Abgeordnetenwatch and FragDenStaat: "With a list of all the laws introduced in this legislative period, we queried the respective associations in each individual ministry," says Semsrott. They came up with about 17,000 possible documents.

"This is about the core principles of democracy," he says. "Namely, about the question of how laws are created and who has influence on these regulations that are binding on everyone." Who gets to have a say when the highway toll law is drafted? And: who is not allowed to? What, for example, is the relationship between business and environmental organizations? Whose formulation aids might even have been incorporated into a law?

Legal recourse to official information

The Federal Ministry of Justice has been putting this data online since April 2016. "So it’s possible," says Semsrott. "With this action we show that a publication is less effort than answering thousands of requests individually."

Initially, it is only about the documents of the now ending legislative period. But Semsrott is confident: "The ministries will not get around our requests," he says. "All they can do now is decide how to deal with it."

The Freedom of Information Act guarantees every person a legal right to access official information from federal authorities. But it has not yet been particularly successful in Germany: the law and how it works are not widely known, and even journalists have rarely made use of it.

The official statistics of the Federal Ministry of the Interior recorded just under 9,000 requests to federal authorities in 2016. "In the UK, that’s several hundred thousand in the same period," says Semsrott. "And if you ask people on the street in the United States, everybody knows what the Freedom of Information Act is."

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