The UK had a simple mechanism for preserving the probity of the its public service until Edward Heath gave permission to two senior Ministry of Defence officials to join a defence contractor without losing their pensions: loss of pension if you joined any business with which you or your colleagues had had dealings.
Heath had thought that the insights the officials would give to the suppliers would lead to added efficiency. We can now see the consequences with a defence review designed to protect procurement programmes rather than the nation and its interests.
We can see similar consequences across all the main silos of Whitehall, from Education to Health and Welfare – including, but not just, to do with regard to their IT systems.
A time of massive semi-voluntary redundancy programmes is not a good time to change the rules but in looking to clean up the probity of central government we need to take a cool look at the cacophony of pots and kettles.
The temptations on a Minister, faced by a united front of officials and the contractors they plan to join after retirement, to set up a private think-tank cum advisory team should not be under-estimated. Nor should the temptations on those he trusts to do so.
Last night I was told that the estimated attendance at the Conservative Party conference was 2000 party activitists, 1,000 journalists and 7,000 lobbyists and hangers on. We were discussing how to handle lobbyists who seek access to policy studies, i.e. not just to enable their client’s Managing Director to meet a Minister to whom they have little to say and no plans for follow up with officials.
I still follow the routines I adopted after being lectured on probity, nearly forty years ago by my father, a pre-Armstong doctrine “Servant of the Crown, not just the current minister” –
Ask lobbyists to get their clients to work with their competitors and their customers to produce well researched material that will stand up to independent peer review. And suggest they offer to co-sponsor the industry conference/dinner at which the Minister responds to the resultant industry brief, while ensuring his officials know the provenance of the material in that brief.
I had been shocked, when working on the ICT-DTI- DoE “Tri-partite” study into the Computing needs of the “new” Regional Water Authorities”, to discover that the officials responsible for policy had not collated the information available on the size and nature of the bodies to be brought together and the problems they would face. I organised a quick four week exercise (that was all the time I had before I needed the results) and 18 months later saw my estimates appear as “the result of a deparmental study”. He told me I should not be surprised at the ignorance of officials, because of their short stay and lack of in-house research facilities, but that I should never take advantage. Instead I should build a reputation for providing accurate and reliable inputs that would stand the test of time.
I did and have survived much longer than even my allies would have predicted.
Now I am attempting to pass what I was taught to the next generation but one – including to young lobbyists who have to survive while their clients try to piss in the winds of change. I do not envy them (other than for their youth and enthusiasm). They will have it much harder than my generation.