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How to measure and monitor the revolving door? Data-sources and evolving approaches

In a first blog, Dieter Zinnbauer looked at some of the main arguments in favour and against the practice of revolving door and how they are substantiated by the latest empirical studies, finding that downside risks outweigh upside benefits. This blog focusses on the research approaches and data that are being used to study the revolving door phenomenon.

Given the weight of the evidence on both the growth and significant downside risk of the revolving door, it appears imperative to closely monitor and track this phenomenon for the purpose of designing and assessing the impact of related policy remedies, such as cooling off-periods and adequate transparency standards. To make this possible, we need data and approaches that allow us to move beyond the occasional snapshot and towards periodically measuring, tracking and comparing across institutions the scale and scope of revolving door issues. Are the current approaches and data fit for purpose in this regard?

Evolving standards of lobbying disclosure have greatly aided revolving door research in a growing number of countries. A new crop of studies has moved from interviews to working with what are now mandatory filings by lobbyists that typically also contain information on prior employment in the public sector. Working with more than 50,000 quarterly filings submitted under the US Lobbying Disclosure Act, LaPira and Thomas (2012) and similar studies can produce a much more comprehensive and also more granular account of the revolving door phenomenon.

The devil is in the data

Unfortunately, such massive and growing databases of lobbying activity still come with serious limitations even in the era of the open data movement. They are often incomplete, difficult to consolidate and query directly and leave out some important types of revolving door practices, thus making them also pretty difficult and cumbersome to use in periodic tracking exercises (e.g. LaPira and Thomas 2012; 2013).  Some NGOs, most notably the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) in the US, have begun to address this issue. They scrape the raw data from the official records, clean it up and make it accessible in more useful formats. These new data intermediaries bridge the gap between disclosure and meaningful use, thereby providing an essential service and public good to researchers and advocates alike. Most of the latest revolving door studies that focus on the US situation use the refined CRP datasets, rather than the “raw materials” of filed reports (e.g. Lazarus et al. 2013; Blanes i Vidal et al. 2010). Given that a growing number of other countries are also expanding their lobbying disclosure standards, there is a strong demand for such data intermediaries in other countries that help economise on the costs for analysis and bring trackable and comparative monitoring closer to reality.

And yet, even a strong future cottage industry of data cleaners might not be quite sufficient. Most revolving door researchers still complement public sources with proprietary databases in order to shed further light on the particular aspects of the revolving door. For-pay repositories used in revolving door research include for example Boardex (information on executives and corporate board membership), Factiva (news archives and profiles of politically-exposed persons) (both Shive and Foster 2014), Lobbyists.Info (detailed information on Washington lobbyists) (LaPira and Thomas 2013) or LegiStorm (database on salaries for congressional staff) (Blanes i Vidal et al. 2010).  This continuing reliance on proprietary sources once more casts doubt on the economic viability of periodic, broad-based monitoring, if high usage or subscription fees are incurred.

The latest frontier and new hope: social media as research trove

Yet, in their quest for finding and harvesting new datasets relevant to revolving door research the very latest crop of efforts point to a new, potentially very powerful trend: the use of social media data.  With hindsight it looks like a very straightforward idea - why not trace networks, career trajectories and fluctuations in employment and connections by looking at the very public social and professional networks that hundreds of millions of people weave online? LinkedIn in particular is evolving into a popular source of data. It is the major global professional networking platform where well beyond 200 million people upload their CVs, market their skills and network for career purposes in the most public of manners.  Initially, revolving door researchers appeared to use the social graphs and bios as uploaded onto LinkedIn to fill gaps and complement other datasets (e.g. LaPira and Thomas 2012 and 2013; Shive and Foster 2014,) but most recently these online networking platforms have moved to the centre of attention. Jiang et al. (2014) for example base their analysis on self-posted LinkedIn profiles of close to 400 rating analysts. And most recently and perhaps also most impressively Lucca et al. (2014) have built a unique dataset with LinkedIn posted bio information of more than 30,000 former and current regulators for their research.

Given the rapid development of online search and big data tools that travel and harvest ever more remote corners of the social media universe this seems to portend many new opportunities for mapping and measuring revolving door issues.   There is a flurry of promising activity and excitement, although the bubbly, techno-activism and focussed scholarly research on revolving door issues seem to be still a bit disconnected. But the conversation is expanding by the month and we might be in for exciting times. Measuring, tracking and comparing revolving door risks in some key areas where policy capture is a particular problem might become a viable proposition soon and many of these new approaches might also lend themselves neatly to tracking other undue influence issues, such as broader conflicts of interests.

References

J. Blanes i Vidal et al., “Revolving Door Lobbyists”, Paper for 5th Annual Conference on Empirical Legal Studies Paper (2010). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1641217

J. Jiang et al., “Former Rating Analysts and the Ratings of MBS and ABS: Evidence from LinkedIn” (2014). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2442472

T. LaPira and H. Thomas, “Revolving Doors: Lobbyists' Government Experience, Expertise, and Access in Political Context”, Annual Meeting Paper, American Political Science Association (2012). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2107222

T. LaPira and H. Thomas, “Just How Many Newt Gingrich's Are There on K Street? Estimating the True Size and Shape of Washington's Revolving Door”, Working Paper (2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2241671

J. Lazarus et al., “Who Goes Through the 'Revolving Door'? Examining the Lobbying Activity of Former Congress Members and Staffers”, Annual Meeting Paper, American Political Science Association (2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2300276

D. Lucca et al., “The Revolving Door and Worker Flows in Banking Regulation”, NBER Working Paper No. 20241 (2014).

S. Shive and M. Foster, “The Revolving Door for Financial Regulators”, Working Paper (2014). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2348968

D. Zinnbauer, "The pros and cons of the revolving door practice – the main arguments", Blog, Anti-Corruption Research Network(2014) Available at http://corruptionresearchnetwork.org/acrn-news/articles/the-pros-and-cons-of-the-revolving-door-practice-2013-the-main-arguments/view

Author : Dieter Zinnbauer

21 Oct 2014


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