September 11, 2014
As the new Commission team sets up in Brussels, the Risk-Monger would like to take the opportunity to congratulate those who have served the European Union over the last Commission. Many of them will take up positions in the private sector. Good on them!!!
At the same time, I am shocked to see good people who have fulfilled their careers of public service being named and shamed by various groups of malcontents. The reason: because after carrying out their duties and completing their commitments, public servants (whether Commission officials or MEPs and their staffers) seem to not be expected to be able to continue their professional lives or finally receive a decent salary commensurate to their skills and intellect. Seriously?
The Risk-Monger is equally ashamed to see the website that publishes this blog give so much attention to the pointless anti-revolving door campaign without thinking through the nonsense of the argument. Maybe it makes for salacious gossip, but it is hardly news and diminishes the work of serious journalism to focus on such silly subjects as “Where are they now?”
OK, so a former public servant leaves government after years of service and takes up a job in the private sector … so what!
Will he or she carry some secret information about how decisions are made in influence? No more than anyone able to read a book or spend some time inside the Bubble watching how things get done.
Are there some sort of secret codes and special handshakes that only these insiders know about? Even the most paranoid among the revolving door activists aren’t that stupid to think that!
Will they have a network of friends that they can influence in favour of their new patrons? Brussels is a small place and having friends in high places in no big deal. The Risk-Monger regularly meets friends from the Commission and Parliament in his sports clubs, social events, service actions and day-to-day activities. Those who think that you need to be employed by government to have a network of close associates do not understand Brussels very well, have not lived here for long or are perhaps not friendly enough to make friends!
Or perhaps the noise made by those critical of the opportunities former government officials have can be put down to petty jealousy.
All campaigners and representatives in Brussels, no matter where they had worked before, will try to influence the policy process – that is what Brussels is about (it annoys me to think I have to actually remind people about the Community Method and the White Paper on Governance – I teach undergrads who know this stuff). But whether it is a drinking buddy or a former boss, any public official is schooled in the proper procedures for gathering information and advice from external individuals in the policy process without allowing to be unduly influenced or corrupted. There are strict codes of conduct, training programmes and internal auditing. We need to trust that officials, MEPs and their staff know enough their responsibilities as public servants to serve the public interest.
Brussels is not about money greasing palms; it is not about backroom deals; it is not about individuals preparing a move from public to private life; rather it is about dialogue and evidence gathering to ensure effective policy. We need to trust that our public officials understand how to limit influence and to follow rules. If there are situations where some officials cross the line, then their public position (and their salary) will be terminated. Someone who has revolved out and is trying to influence in will have no more influence in the policy process than the Risk-Monger helping his EU official drinking buddy into a taxi at three in the morning.
If I only befriend these officials for policy lobbying opportunities, soon enough these people will see my shallowness (and my lack of integrity would become life-threatening). Only people who despise humanity would always think the worst of people’s intentions.
The Real Revolving Door Threat
So the route from public to private service should not have a significant effect on the functioning of policy. The real threat is when someone with an agenda honed during years of professional enculturation moves from the private sector or civil society to take on the reins of power. They are more prone to surround themselves with people they know and trust and continue to run their campaigns, but from the seat of power and real influence.
But what sort of person would want to make the jump from the professional world to government service? Those of a certain competence in the business world are capable of moving up the corporate ladder, receiving a good remuneration and challenging opportunities within their professional network. They would have to have found religion to give that up and work in the myriad maze and frustration of public service. Those with ambition and skill working in civil society structures meanwhile will likely be frustrated by their mid-30s with the lack of opportunity such flat, localised organisations can provide them. To move up to a better position, better pay or more effectively make a difference in what they are passionate about, the ideal move would be from their NGO into government. One needs simply to walk the halls of UNEP and the WHO in Geneva to see how many government employees have civil society-driven CVs and realise that this revolving door is more attractive to NGO activists (and hence not focused on).
While scrutiny should be made to control who moves into influential positions in government, I am surprised at the hypocrisy of certain NGO groups who get spitting mad and write letters demanding action if someone from industry gets proposed to assume a meaningless and ceremonial European agency board position but then applaud or remain silent when someone from civil society (one of their own) moves into public service. Take for example the recent appointment of the former European Public Health Alliance secretary general, Monika Kosinska, being appointed to the World Health Organisation. Would they react the same if the head of Cefic were to be given the same position? Hypocrites indeed!
How much damage can an activist do in a position of power? Take the classic example of former Friends of the Earth leader, David Gee, who one-day found himself as the science director for the European Environment Agency. For years he led environmentalist campaigns against industry under the EU flag, sat on boards of groups aiming to undermine the mainstream scientific positions on subjects from endocrine to EMFs (without any specific scientific expertise in these matters) and published documents intended to handcuff industry and innovative sciences from flourishing in Europe. As lead author of both miserable Late Lessons tombs, he poisoned the well for EU dialogue and rational policy for generations to come by rewriting how the precautionary principle could be used and interpreted in the EU. He was protected until his boss was turfed out of the EEA in disgrace for using her influence to financially help some of her environmental NGO friends.
This is the real threat of a revolving door, but nobody seems prepared to focus on that – not even journalists … perhaps they too are busy planning their future careers in government!
Conflict of Interest Statement: As a Canadian, the Risk-Monger has no prospect of ever working in an EU government position (God forbid anyone who would ever consider giving him some power!), so can speak his mind freely here.