The Revolving Door: Watchdog is Toothless

The revolving door watchdog, the Advisory Committee of Business Appointments (ACoBA), appears to have finally shown some teeth in refusing to approve a retrospective application from the MOD’s former HR chief. But he will still be able to take up the role.

ACoBA’s exists to try and prevent former public officials from exploiting their government contacts or using insider information for the benefit of private employers. Ministers and senior civil servants are expected to seek advice before accepting positions outside government. But when the Armed Forces charity, Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Family Association, announced their appointment of  Sir Andrew Gregory, it was the first ACoBA had heard of it.

The committee sent a letter to Sir Gregory expressing their ‘concern’ about his late application and refusing to give their approval. However, as ACoBA is only an advisory body there is nothing stopping him from taking the appointment anyway.

There were only 5 retrospective applications in the period 2014-15, no doubt an improvement on previous years. In 2011-12 one quarter of applications were retrospective, the majority of which were approved without comment. But as long as ACoBA lacks a statutory basis or enforceable sanctions for non-compliance it continues to run that risk that those who want to, will simply ignore it.

Even when public officials do correctly seek advice, ACoBA fails to provide in-depth, rigorous scrutiny into the appropriateness of their future employment. It has been accused of ‘rubber-stamping’ applications. Of the 367 applicants who have applied since 2010 not one has been publicly rejected. This draws into question just how severe a conflict of interest needs to be for ACoBA to say no.

The committee can advise certain conditions like a ban on lobbying for 2 years or refraining from using information gained whilst working in government but there is no monitoring process to check if anyone is actually following the rules.

Until the revolving door is effectively regulated the media will continue to find scandal after scandal. Already fragile public trust will continue to be eroded. The notion that a ‘cosy club’ between business and government exists will be further reinforced. And the public will continue to question whether public officials are genuinely motivated by a commitment to public service or whether they are more concerned with themselves and their own careers.