1 thought on “Lobbying in politics: a perennial issue?”

  1. Posted 20/11/2021 at 08:00 | Permalink

    The corporate lobbying scandal involving a former Prime Minister has exposed the nexus between the political elite and the business elite that contrives to put the interests of big business first, ahead of the wants, needs and expectations of ordinary citizens, not least, because the twin evils of lobbying and corruption rear their ugly heads every time taxpayers’ money crosses the boundary between the public sector and the private sector.

    In this latest exposé of influence peddling in Whitehall, the press and media have painted a picture which gives the impression that only a handful of people are involved in these nefarious activities. The reason is simple – journalists are obsessed by human interest stories and consequently, they have developed a habit of focusing only on people and personalities right at the top.

    But the fact of the matter is that lobbying and corruption is widespread throughout the public sector (and by extension the private sector), at every level of the hierarchy, but no one has bothered to publicise this reality for the benefit of the public.

    The Seven Principles of Public Life, also known as the Nolan Principles, which form the basis for ethical conduct expected of people in public office are being routinely and brazenly violated, without care or concern – not only by top politicians, but also the administrative and military elite.

    Consider for a moment, the market in defence equipment for which the government is the only customer.

    The clear message behind the government’s defence procurement policy is that military equipment for the Armed Forces is to be purchased through fair and open competition – the only exceptions being off-the-shelf purchases and single-source development contracts, the latter to be handed out on a preferential basis (to the Select Few).

    But, the problem with letting uncontested, single-source contracts in this way is that the decision on which contractors to pick, and which to leave out is in the hands of a small number of people in Whitehall – leaving them exposed to the charge of favouring the privileged few (usually those who shout loudest in the corridors of power) at the expense of the many, thereby tilting the playing field towards the same selected few and unwittingly entrenching considerable economic power, possibly for decades to come.

    The market in defence equipment, funded exclusively by taxpayers, is there for all private sector players to partake in. Instead of resorting to heavy-handed interventions, the government should deploy the market-based instrument of competition to select the winning contractor on the basis of price competitiveness and value for money. To this end, the defence equipment market should be shaped not by the interfering hand of people in the pay of the State who always get it wrong, but by competitive market forces driven by the profit motive and winning mindset.

    Additionally, there exists an extremely high risk that committing public funds in this way will not deliver the return on investment as advertised, or worse still, squandered altogether because:

    (a) Procurement officials at MoD’s defence procurement organisation in Bristol, who are charged with negotiating the finer details of the contract are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the private sector, which means that they will be duped into spending taxpayers’ money on poorly conceived projects – only for this to come to light many years later, when some Select Committee of the House of Commons produces a report on its findings.

    (b) The internal business process used to select the recipient for the contract is susceptible to manipulation and distortion by parliamentary lobbyists in the pay of those who can afford to spend the most.

    (c) It is certain that the final decision on the choice of the single, preferred contractor which is in the hands of the governing elite will be made, not in the national interest but to serve the interests of career politicians or their financial backers.

    But what is worrying about this top-down approach to organising the defence equipment market by diktat is that it is riddled with conflicts of interest because the judgements made by these people, as it relates to the expenditure of public funds are distorted by the fact that they will end up in the private sector via the “revolving door” to pursue a second career, sometime later on. More specifically, there is every chance that they will favour one bidder over others (in response to clear signals) and treat this bidder leniently, when it comes to marking invitation to tender responses because they are completely dependent upon it for their subsequent career choices, when their time in public service comes to an end or their employment contract is terminated abruptly by political edict.

    To add to this wanton act of recklessness, the moment they arrive on the contractor’s premises these people, especially those who had reached the upper echelons of the Civil Service & Armed Forces and who are intent on proving their worth, immediately begin the task of lobbying their former colleagues to swing the decision on down-selection in favour of their new employers – in so doing, destroying the level playing field which is at the very heart of the competition process, not to mention, reinforcing the view that there exists a cosy relationship between MoD and contractors. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that contractors’ decision on whom to recruit is heavily biased in favour of people who are about to leave the bosom of the State.

    So, we have a situation where the very people who are supposed to ensure fair play are actively engaged in undermining it, for the sole purpose of advancing their careers – aided and abated by defence contractors.

    And because contractors know no other way of bringing-in new defence business other than by subverting the procurement process, they have become trapped in a cycle of repeatedly taking on more and more of these type of people, because their contacts within MoD have a habit of drying-up after a few months due to the massive churn of postholders in the public sector – which means that incumbents displaced by new arrivals are forced to move sideways into other business-critical roles for which they are woefully ill-equipped, bearing in mind that they only got a job in the private sector not on merit, but because of who they knew. It would explain why staff on contractors’ payroll today is made-up entirely of people who were previously in the pay of the State.

    What makes it particularly easy for contractors to exploit these people is the receptiveness of public servants borne of their desperate desire to leave the public sector, as well as, the common traits of sense of entitlement, self-importance and inflated (mainly male) egos.

    Far from facilitating the delivery of equipment to the Armed Forces that is fit for purpose, adequately sustained in-service and constitutes value for money through-life, defence procurement and the attendant defence manufacturing industry that relies on it for its survival is nothing but a protection racket – created to serve the career interests of people who are currently in the pay of the State, and those who were previously in the pay of the State.

    Operating together, these two groups should be seen as an insidious fraternity hell-bent on taking full advantage of their origins deep in the establishment to get the better of the State.

    So, it is clear that the much-vaunted values of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership have not got in the way of procurement officials putting their self-interest first, ahead of the public interest.

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