A month ago we may have given the understaffed Joint Secretariat of the EU Transparency Register a bit of a headache. We sent them 4,253 official complaints, about half the organisations on the register. This might have been a wake-up call not only for the secretariat, but also for many lobby organisations in Brussels.
Our complaints based on a few simple plausibility checks identified incorrect, inaccurate or out-of-date entries. Our complaint was meant to improve the overall data quality and we hope over time to get lobby organisations to take the register more seriously and pro-actively provide accurate information, not only if one has been contacted by the secretariat following a complaint. After all if half the data on the Transparency Register is incorrect then it makes the whole thing somewhat unusable.
So what has happened as a result of our complaints? Has this wake-up call been heard?
First, it should be acknowledged that the staff at the Joint Secretariat of the Transparency Register were quick to react to our complaints. And what’s more they have been very open for further feedback and are giving this issue the priority it deserves. Despite limited resources, officials have signalled that they are currently looking into each individual case we highlighted.
As of October 1st, the first batch of 293 organisations which failed to report any activities covered by the register have been contacted and had time to update. As a consequence of the complaints
- 195 organisations have been suspended from the Register (from a total 226 suspensions for September)
- 91 organisations have updated their declarations (from a total of 120 updates in this category). They have added about 30,000 characters of text in the field of EU activities, amounting to about 15 A4 pages of additional information.
- 7 organisations have not yet been suspended or updated
This leaves however 3,960 complaints for the Secretariat to go over in the next weeks and months. We see two important lessons:
- The scale of the misreporting clearly shows systematic problems, rooted in the design of the Register. The idea of a purely voluntary Register has failed and reform is urgently needed. Without proper monitoring and incentives interest groups are reluctant to sign-up and when they do, in many cases they provide limited or incorrect information.
- The Secretariat needs more capacity to ensure the proper functioning of the Register and to execute the necessary spot-checks.
Time to act
The European Commission indicated that it wants to start negotiations with the European Parliament and the Council on reforming the current lobby transparency regime by the end of the year. Of course with competing priorities for the Commission, the preparation of a draft proposal seems to have slipped down Vice President Timmermans’ agenda.
It is crucial that when the institutions sit down to talks they revive the initial spirit of transparency that the newly elected Commission demonstrated when they took office a year ago. They can only do this by putting forward substantial and ambitious reforms.
As time passes and urgency seemingly fades, it is all too easy to keep snoozing on long overdue reforms.