As I’ve mentioned before, I like reading the Higher Education Strategy Associates blog as they have some really interesting articles and topics. Most of the time I find it intriguing, maybe even illuminating, but once in a while I think, “nope, sorry, that analysis is weak”. Today’s article was in a similar vein about B.C. universities’ use of lobbyists to influence the BC government and the government telling them not to spend their money on lobbyists instead of actual programming.
So, the BC Government is telling BC universities that they shouldn’t hire lobbyists to lobby the provincial government. […]
From the university’s perspective, the sloganeering makes no sense unless you take the lobbyists effectiveness into account. If the lobbyist achieves nothing, then yes, that money would be better spent in the classroom. But if by spending 50K on a lobbyist, an institution ends up receiving another 500K in money, then that’s money extremely well spent. Obviously, it’s not always simple to determine cause and effect when it comes to an individual’s work, but that’s how universities need to look at the problem; is there a return on investment?
Admittedly, from the public’s point of view it’s not so simple. There is an unseemliness to institutions who receive public money to lobby government for more money. […]
But here’s the basic point: we shouldn’t pretend all government decisions regarding universities are made on the basis of pure unadulterated reason. Lots of things still get settled by grace and favour, and who knows who. That story I linked to up top notes that UBC doesn’t pay any lobbyists. That of course is because they don’t have to: UBC is connected up the wazoo, and it shows in any number of funding decisions the provincial government has made over the years. For other universities, paying lobbyists is just a way of trying to equalize the playing field. And what’s wrong with that?Government Relations | HESA
In my view, the short answer is that whoever pays the band, they get to choose the tune. When we see it as government spending, we traditionally only worry if that means they’re shutting down democracy, stifling debate, or outright pork-barreling by only giving money to friends.
It often surprises me that people say “Oh, well, of course, the government should fund NGO x or y, it’s part of democracy.” Then again, so was electing the government in the first place. For example, if we elect a party that is running on a platform of “transportation infrastructure”, should the government once elected then fund NGOs that would actively oppose doing anything on infrastructure and thus impede their own work? It’s the same argument on funding when it comes to programming.
Often, if the government has decided to do more programming say in the field of health promotion, and the evidence they have says the most effective way to reach teens is through social media, should the government continue to fund organizations that want to use print and TV media too, simply because “it’s only fair”? Too often in the history of government, organizations get funding not because their approach aligns with the priorities of the government direction but simply because their hand is out too. Supply-side economics rather than the demand for effective programming approaches.
In the case of the B.C. government, why would the government fund universities to turn around and lobby them? If one wants to argue there is a role for lobbyists, make that argument. That isn’t the issue. The issue is whether the university, having received the funds from the government, should use that money to lobby the government. And let’s be honest about what that lobbying looks like. If the university already agrees with the government direction, they won’t bother lobbying, there’s no need. So the university is only going to lobby when it is asking the government to go in a different direction than it is already doing. Or, in other words, the university is going to use the money the government gave it to actively oppose the current direction of the same government. While any government would prefer the university doesn’t oppose them at all, the rubber hits the road when the government realizes they’re actively funding opposition to their own policies.
If universities want to hire lobbyists, they should do so with funds clearly derived from other sources of revenue. Would, for example, the students (that the university supposedly serves) be willing to pay an extra student levy? Hardly popular, but highly transparent, and no programming conflict — but the lobbyist would get no funds because no student would agree to pay it.
If you want to see this in a related action, check out registered charities with the Government of Canada. Charities have a much more pointed situation that mirrors universities — registered charities can only engage in up to 10% advocacy work. Of course, many charities argue this infringes their freedom of speech (surprising the blog article didn’t go there on universities). But the truth is that if you are a charity, you are being underwritten by the taxpayer. Not 1:1, but the tax breaks are often why you get funds in the first place from donors (after all, they could just register as an NGO with no restrictions on lobbying).
So governments limit the allowable advocacy spending to just 10% — because the charitable status comes from doing charitable works, not from being a mouthpiece on the taxpayer’s dime. There’s a great quote from a U.S. judge that basically summed it up in a case on point — you have the right to freedom of speech, not the right to freedom of speech underwritten by the taxpayer.
So if the government says “here’s money to run the university”, it’s not unreasonable to say “don’t use it to oppose us through lobbying”. It’s supposed to be needs-based to do programming.
The article concludes that “lobbying levels the playing field”. That may be the biggest joke of all, and easily disproved through U.S. election spending. But more importantly, if a large or even medium-sized university wants to lobby the government on something, they can do so any day of the week with a letter that will get read by the highest levels of government. Heck, the press will even reprint it for them. They don’t have to pay lobbyists like a backwater company that nobody has ever heard of…when universities talk about university affairs, people listen. They don’t always agree with the self-serving analysis, but they listen.
No lobbyists required.