Few occupations are as shrouded in mystery and stigma as lobbying. The very word conjures up images of panama hat wearing ex-pollies, winks in the corridors of Parliament House and deals stitched up over long, boozy lunches.

No wonder so many of the people featured on our Lobbyists Power List asked us to call them something — anything — other than a lobbyist.

The truth is that, while there are still a few shonks in the game, lobbying today is about more than just opening doors and cashing in old favours. It’s an increasingly sophisticated industry involving everything from polling to economic modelling to media manipulation.

“As the industry gets bigger it is becoming more professional,” says Simon Banks, who heads up Hawker Britton’s Canberra office. “Those people who try and survive at the margins are finding it harder and harder to survive. That’s a good thing.”

Lobbyists, by definition, don’t pull the levers of power. And even the most effective ones don’t always get their way. But if you want to understand how policy gets made in this country, you can’t afford to ignore them — especially in these days of minority government, when every vote is crucial.

“It is becoming more and more difficult to go and have a coffee in our own parliamentary coffee shop, outside the public arena, but where all the lobbyists are, without being buttonholed,” Greens Leader Bob Brown said earlier this year. “It is prodigious, the power of the lobbyists.”

Most of the lobbyists featured in our top 10 fall into one of two categories: “guns for hire” or industry group leaders.

The guns for hire — also known as government relations specialists — take on briefs to help companies, NGOs or other groups deal with government. There are more than 630 of them working in Canberra, according to the federal lobbyist register. They tend to be former politicians, political staffers, journalists and bureaucrats — people with a special insight into the way government operates. While many work at consultancy firms such as Hawker Britton, Kreab Gavin Anderson and Barton Deakin, there’s also a large band of sole traders.

Industry group leaders, on the other hand, represent specific sectional interests such as mining, manufacturing, financial services and the medical profession. They negotiate behind the scenes with government, but often seek to advance their cause by appearing in the media.

There are other types of lobbyists as well. NGOs and activist groups also lobby politicians — hence the inclusion of GetUp! director Simon Sheikh in our top 10. And big companies such as BHP, Qantas and Macquarie Bank employ internal lobbyists (usually called public affairs managers) to deal with government.

It’s worth noting that only the “guns for hire” are required to register their clients and comply with the federal government’s Lobbying Code of Conduct.

Almost every lobbyist interviewed by The Power Index for this series agreed on two things. Firstly, what you know is more important than who you know. Secondly, don’t underestimate the importance of the bureaucracy.

*Read the full story at The Power Index