How we learned to lobby and be lobbied

Czechs just acquired a new tool for the democratic control of public finances. Will it help?

Photo: CreativeCommons/ Nicholas Eckhart


After two years of quarrels and arguments, the Czech Parliament finally passed a law establishing a publicly accessed register of almost all contracts drawn by state and public institutions. Theoretically this gives the public free and open access to the contracts state and public agencies close with second parties. The initial assumption made by the law´s advocates that it will save the country billions, may prove too optimistic, but it certainly could prevent public servants and private firms from closing contracts that are openly disadvantageous to the state.

Transparency proponents designed the law as an important instrument to fight corruption which, as recent public opinion surveys show, is a pressing issue for Czech society. Two-thirds (66%) of Czechs polled in early 2015 believed that the majority of their public officials were involved in corruption. When respondents were asked about specific institutions: 74% said they thought political parties were corrupt; 66% pointed to corrupt practices in EU funds redistribution; and 58% saw the ministries and the building authorities as hotbeds of corruption. 1

One of the law’s toughest fights raged over a key clause, which stated that any contract not made public and electronically published on the Internet, should be invalidated. However, various exceptions and limitations, resulting from compromises with the register´s opponents in parliament, were written into it. The open policy “fanatics” certainly regret one of the biggest and most influential corporations owned by the Czech state, the energy giant ČEZ, “slipping” from their hands, as it received an exemption from the law (some other state-owned corporations did too). 2 But it does not completely diminish the value of the law, which is set to enhance transparent public administration, the prudent management of tax-payers´ money and efficient public control.

While an optimist would say finit coronat opus or “the end crowns the work,” which means that it’s not always the invested effort, time or resources, but the results that matter – the complicated and time-consuming passage of the law is somehow disturbing.

The fact is that the law was not passed voluntarily and enthusiastically by the clear majority of free-access-public-control-loving MPs, but more or less against their will. They were pressured by an ambitious project called “The Reconstruction of the State,” an ad-hoc coalition of individual MPs, like Mr. Jan Farský (TOP 09), 3 led by a former non-profit advisory association-turned legal firm, Frank Bold, 4 along with a bunch of small NGOs engaged in endless battles with state and municipal bureaucracies to uncover their contracts or internal information. The coalition mobilized important segments of the public, pressing the MPs to vote for the law – not because they wanted to – but because they had to in order to avoid being exposed as pro-corruptionists.

The reluctant or openly oppositional MPs had very skillfully managed to sideline the legislative process to the “grey areas” of parliamentary committees and chambers since the first draft of the law was introduced to the newly elected parliament in 2013. They were extremely creative in coming up with reasons why the register would be too expensive to install, too complicated to maintain or too harmful to state-owned companies’ competitive edge; in the end they even came close to thwarting the law in the final voting process. 5

The experience has taught both camps – NGOs and politicians – some useful lessons. NGOs learned that politicians will make promises and sign up for almost anything before elections, but afterwards are capable of denying their own names. And because NGOs had to become unscrupulous lobbyists, ruthlessly chasing politicians in every sense of the word, they also learned that writing fiery manifestos, penning punchy articles and mobilizing Facebook activists is not enough to influence the law-making process.

Politicians learned that becoming a MP, does not grant them the ability to act as they wish – no more of this, “give us a vote, and then leave us alone until the next election.” Some MPs were actually surprised that they were pushed to vote for something they actually promised to vote for during their election campaigns, complaining that they were disturbed and unpleasantly surprised by the NGO’s mobilization of voters by way of mail and phone campaigns. This tacitly confirms that Czech MPs are more comfortable dealing with corporate lobbyists privately, behind closed doors, than they are openly facing the public.

Notes:

  1. Public opinion on the breadth and depth of corruption and its distribution between public officials and institutions, March 2015 (accessed on 26 November, 2015).
  2. The register of contracts was finally passed after two years, the MPs rejected the curtailed version proposed by the Senate,” 24 November, 2015, aktuálně.cz (accessed on 26 November, 2015).
  3. Jan Farský´s official website (accessed on 26 November, 2015).
  4. The Reconstruction of the State (accessed on 26 November, 2015).
  5. Public contracts not made public on the Internet will be invalidated,” 24 November, 2015, idnes.cz, (accessed on 24 November, 2015).
Jan Adamec

Jan Adamec

is editor of the V4Revue, historian and political scientist. His area of expertise is the history of Hungary, USSR and Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1957. He graduated from Central European University in Budapest and Charles University in Prague where he currently completes his PhD degree with thesis about the Hungarian uprising in 1956.