Recent speculation about an imminent federal election has rekindled media interest in the backrooms of politics and the world of government relations.

From Top Ten lists of influential lobbyists to news stories about the movement of individuals across the government-private sector divide, the media have renewed their interest in those individuals believed to be calling the shots from behind the curtain, and in the rules that govern their activities.

To a certain extent, there is a cyclical nature to the resurgence of lobbying as a news item. Prior to every election, the media look to shed light on the political actors whose names never appear on a ballot but whose influence is felt in every facet of the campaign. But there is something materially different about the issue this time. The Conservative Party won the election in 2006 largely on the issue of ethics and accountability, and the Conservative government has since gone out of its way to makes its case to Canadians that the rules now in place have strengthened accountability in the public sector. The role of lobbyists in the processes of government today, therefore, carries more weight in the mind of voters.

As part of the Federal Accountability Act (FAA), which received Royal Assent in December 2006, the Lobbyist Registration Act was renamed Lobbying Act.

This new law includes new provisions to increase the information available to the public regarding who is lobbying designated public office holders, on whose behalf, and in what circumstances. It restricts the flow of former senior government advisors into the lobbying industry. And it also creates the office of the Commissioner of Lobbying, with enhanced investigative powers to review individual registrations by lobbyists of their contacts with government.

Earlier this year, the Government of Canada published in the Canada Gazette Part I the proposed regulatory text regarding lobbyist registrations necessary to bring into force the Lobbying Act. Expected to come into force in July, these regulations will require that lobbyists file a monthly return, detailing each prescribed communication they have had with designated public office holders.

Almost two years after the tabling of the FAA in the House of Commons, the debate on the merits of the Act and the accompanying regulations rages on in the opinion pages of daily newspapers, talk radio and television panel discussions. Have the rules changed the lobbying industry? Have we shed more light on the matter, or have we pushed more activity into the shadows?

According to many, the Federal Accountability Act has gone a long way to provide more detailed and timely information to the public on the interface between government and lobbyists, which, in itself, must be a good thing.

The Act also strikes an appropriate balance between the legitimate need for disclosure and creating such a heavy regulatory burden that it drives down compliance. Others claim the new rules stand little chance of changing old behaviors, and that the lobbying industry continues to operate in much the same way as it always has.

In many ways, this debate on the rules is missing the point. The world of government relations is changing, but it has little to do with regulations or personalities and everything to do with the fact that government itself is changing. Having a strong regulatory framework in place to govern lobbying activities is critical to ensuring transparency in government. But the evolution of government itself will have a far greater impact on lobbying than the rules ever can.

In April 2007, a small group (which included this writer) led by governance expert and policy entrepreneur Don Lenihan published a short book on the changes needed to bring government into the 21st Century. Entitled Progressive Governance for Canadians: What You Need to Know, the book examines the changing expectations of citizens with regards to policy development and decision-making and proposes ways in which governments can engage the private and third sectors, communities and citizens themselves in its decision-making processes.

Information and communications technologies (ICTs) are transforming government. Above and beyond simply allowing for online service delivery, we are building a whole new type of public infrastructure and reorganizing government in a host of ways. The opportunities afforded to governments and citizens by ICTs have changed expectations regarding public engagement in government decision-making and have allowed governments to reorganize themselves around the needs of citizens.

To keep up, however, new government machinery will be needed to ensure that our public sector better reflects the networked, wired world in which it operates. The impact of ICTs has gone far beyond technology – it is today a driver and an enabler of change in terms of governance and democracy. As businesses have had in the last decade to transform supply chains, product development and service delivery, governments are now facing the hard task of undergoing a similar transformation. In future, government machinery will have to be flattened, and real and meaningful partnerships between governments, the private and third sectors, communities and citizens will be needed to set public goals and chart a course to meet them.

Trouble is, governments are not yet very good at reaching out. Public consultations are a step in the right direction, but they are only the first step. Meaningful engagement of outside resources and knowledge will require that governments learn to share risk and decision-making.

More than monthly submissions of forms and disclosures of individual prescribed communications, it is these challenges that will fundamentally change the practice of government relations and the realities of lobbying.

If governments are indeed at a crossroads, and if the future does lie in networked governance structures and relationships with outside actors, government relations practitioners will, in turn, have to adjust to these new processes of government.

In this world, lobbyists become facilitators of dialogue and interpreters. They seek opportunities for the businesses and NGOs they represent to contribute to public processes. They shape arguments in public interest terms, and they forge partnerships with other actors and other sectors. It is less about who you know, and more about what you know. Moreover, if the partnership is to be meaningful, it is no longer sufficient to be clear just on what we expect government to do for us. If we want to share in the decision-making, we have to be prepared to share in the risk – what’s our ‘skin in the game’?

For all these reasons, rules that isolate government from the outside world are the last thing we need. What are needed are rules that regulate engagement and encourage collaboration. It will always be important to have full and timely disclosure of who is lobbying whom, and on whose behalf.

But it will be increasingly important to also know how we can connect the players, coordinate the strategies and regulate the relationships. In this light, the new Lobbying Act and regulations are critical – even essential – components of the framework for government relations in Canada. Our task as practitioners is now to assist governments, businesses and voluntary sector organizations in experimenting with more collaborative forms of decision-making in full view of the public. With the right governance framework, we do not have to choose between accountability and partnership.

Building government for the 21st century requires us to achieve both – to create public spaces for all sectors to find policy solutions together all the while ensuring the integrity of the public process and protecting the public interest. Facilitating the dialogue needed to get us there is the next challenge for government relations practitioners.