Sstop a thought for the ministers and mandarins of Great Britain. Making the right decision in the public interest is not always easy when those who have a vested interest in your decisions are listening incessantly. However, it is your duty. But it is one that has been compromised by the fact that public service has become, for many, just one part of a career in which acquiring the kind of wealth available only beyond Whitehall is a key goal.
This week revelation that, for a couple of months in 2015, the government commercial director also worked for supply chain finance company Greensill Capital, was called “extraordinary and shocking” by Cabinet Office shadow minister Rachel Reeves. However, as part of a culture in which moving from a position of public responsibility to one of private benefit is now the norm, the overlapping of roles seems nothing more than a curiosity. The dual role had been approved by a cabinet office on top of which sat the late cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood.
Heywood returned to government in 2007 after a stint at investment bank Morgan Stanley, where he met Greensill founder Lex Greensill. By 2011, he was reportedly taking the Australian to Downing Street to advise him on the use of supply chain finance in government. Fast forward to Covid-era Britain, when the former prime minister who cheered him on, David Cameron, found himself pushing for taxpayer-funded support for the hitherto unknown Greensill.
This is the “revolving door” in action: it brings to the government high-level figures not only with some experience, but also with a vision that favors private interests over public ones. On the contrary, lucrative opportunities are looming for influential public figures to benefit in the future in the areas over which they dominate. The effect is more insidious than deliberately corrupt. Few officials or ministers happily rub their hands together as they manipulate decisions to favor future employers, but they begin to see the world a little more as those who will be worth keeping by their side. And with lobbying now so technologically easy, the hybrid public-private server is likely to be more receptive to text messages from old colleagues: the modern take on Yes, Minister’s Sir Humphrey’s armchair chats at the gentlemen’s club.
The revolving door, and the concern for it, is nothing new. Cameron could be forgiven for pointing to the myriad positions taken by his chancellor, George Osborne, over the past five years. After presiding over years of austerity that ultimately enriched the rich at the expense of the poor, Osborne landed a one-day-a-week job for £ 650,000 a year at asset manager BlackRock. The company also assumed its former chief of staff, Rupert Harrison, the architect of UK pension reforms.
The revolving door rotates so frequently that the magazine I write for, Private Eye, can cover such questionable movements in almost every issue. It is not strange, for example, that the high military commanders and the officials of the Ministry of Defense acquire management positions or advisers in the main arms companies, or consultancies cleverly interspersed between them and the ruling party, later in their careers. The result is a cadre of officers and officials who know that these companies will be their employers in no time and that they could very well be back in the corridors of power representing them. Even without bad intentions, decision making is distorted.
Revolving door surveillance remains homeopathically weak. The government’s Public Appointments Advisory Committee (Acoba), which former ministers and senior public officials should consult, is just that. He can be ignored with almost impunity and his advice, even in cases with seemingly obvious conflicts of interest, is invariably that appointments can go ahead with weak constraints to lobby former colleagues. for only two years. The public and the media learn that a revolving door moves only after the event, at which point the reasons why it might not be a good idea cannot be considered. In one notable case, the committee approved Former HMRC Permanent Secretary Dave Hartnett joined the accounting firm Deloitte despite having met with one of its senior partners on 48 separate occasions in five years and had been criticized for reaching agreements with a number of ” love agreements “with large corporations.
This type of example has led to repeated reviews of the revolving door system, without success. In 2017, the Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs and Public Administration found that “the failures of governments to regulate [the revolving door] they have properly damaged public confidence in politics and public institutions and have caused repeated scandals ”. The advisory committee was “without teeth”. But even relatively mild recommendations from MPs, such as preventing public officials from taking jobs related to previous areas of regulatory responsibility for two years, they were rejected.
The new Acoba chair, Lord Pickles, promises to be a new broom. But it is operating under a very old system, which can only be changed by the very politicians who benefit from it. The lack of reform, the committee of deputies warned four years ago, “will lead to an even greater decline in public confidence in our democracy and our government.” In the wake of the Greensill scandal, they can say for sure again, and based on past evidence they will likely have to do so in a few more years.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism