Risks of ‘revolving door’ clauses Belgian federal government investigated

Twee draaideuren met onherkenbare passanten
Photo: istock.com/DNY59

Belgian ministers work intensively with so-called 'cabinets', personal advisers coming from the private sector and (semi)government. These employees often also return to these companies and organisations after some time. Few rules apply to their transfers but this can result in integrity issues or (seemingly) conflicts of interest. This has led to several scandals in the Belgian media in recent years. Utrecht University has explored such post-employment conflicts of interest at the Belgian federal government. The researchers make concrete recommendations for improvements to the culture and policy within the Belgian federal government regarding the possible conflicts of interest in these ‘revolving door’ constructions. Monitoring and effective control are important but awareness, creating sensitivity and ethical leadership even more.

Commissioned by the Belgian minister De Sutter of Civil Service, Public Enterprises, Telecommunications and Postal Service, researchers led by Kim Loyens of the Utrecht University School of Governance (USG) carried out the exploration. They compiled their findings in the research report 'Draaideurconstructies en belangenconflicten’ (Revolving door constructions and conflicts of interest. An exploratory study of risks and policy measures in terms of conflicts of interest after leaving the federal administrative office and policy cells.)

The risk of conflicts of interest in policy cells and federal government departments

Belgian ministers are advised, among others, by policy cells, also known as 'cabinets', which consist of several dozen staff with specific expertise drawn from ministries, but also companies and semi-governmental organisations. Sometimes these are employees who are 'loaned' by a private organisation for a short time, and thus return to companies and semi-governmental organisations after their advisory role. This entails risks in terms of conflicts of interest and integrity.

Even among senior civil servants, such a transfer sometimes leads to (possible, seemingly) conflicts of interest. For instance, after retirement, a director-general of the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) set up a consultancy company that gives advice to companies supervised by the FASFC. Some inspectors also switched sides.

Many revolving door clauses at least appear to result in conflict of interest, but are legal

It's not against the law, says project leader Kim Loyens, but that's exactly the point. Many revolving door clauses at least appear to result in conflict of interest, but are legal.  This means that some big players have more influence on policy-making than others. When employees of control bodies move to the private sector, the independence of government - especially in the perception of citizens - can be compromised. All this can damage citizens' trust in government.

There is still a lot to be gained in this respect, Loyens continues. The federal government still does not give enough thought to the seemingly favouring of a particular company, or the appearance of conflicts of interest in general. For example, while the execution of public contracts is neatly regulated in legislation (it should be, by the way, following European Union policy), there is insufficient control of the regulation of the revolving door constructions. There is also too little insight into integrity risks when switching between sectors and organisations is concerned. A risk analysis is needed to ascertain which positions require new measures.

Risk analysis

Some services say: this is not a priority for us. Others do want to make a real effort. Sciensano (the Belgian RIVM - ed.) for example. They were under a lot of pressure during the Covid crisis and were under a magnifying glass, also in terms of risks of integrity and conflicts of interest. They undertook a major exercise in this area to identify all interests. They are one of the exceptions, but a great example of how to do it.

When it comes to revolving door clauses, the European Union seems to want to tighten up in particular. GRECO within the Council of Europe prefers to encapsulate everything in rules and procedures. But that will also make a lot of things unworkable and then you will miss the benefits, such as the exchange of knowledge and flexibility in the labour market.

At a time when trust in the government seems to be declining, you have to try and regain it in this field

Kim Loyens
Kim Loyens

It is particularly about awareness and a culture change, Loyens stresses. Perhaps in a specific context a ban or a code could be the solution, but for general awareness of possible integrity issues and (seemingly) conflicts of interest, at least making a risk analysis is important.

It is not just about how decisions are made, but also how that comes across to citizens. At a time when trust in government seems to be declining, you have to try to regain it in this field.

Recommendations to the Minister

The researchers highlight the importance of raising awareness, creating sensitivity and strengthening the culture within the federal government on integrity and conflicts of interest. To this end, they make several, concrete recommendations, such as:

  • Risk analysis. Among other things, the researchers recommend a risk analysis tailored to specific situations in practice. This should lead to a 'best-fit' in policy and customising, as a 'one-size-fits-all' approach does not work in preventing and managing post-employment conflicts of interest.
  • Cost-benefit analysis. Next, a cost-benefit analysis should reveal whether new policies are necessary or useful. Here, it is important to strike a proper balance between ensuring integrity among former employees on the one hand and the right to free labour mobility on the other. Moreover, political choices are needed on which risks should be avoided as much as possible and which are acceptable.
  • Monitoring. It is also very important that there is effective implementation and monitoring of all measures in place, designed to prevent post-employment conflicts of interest. This applies especially to the revolving door clause in public procurement. According to the researchers, it is essential to clarify the rules in this field, and emphasize their importance.
  • Ethical leadership. Ethical leadership of managers and top officials is crucial. They must act with integrity themselves, and proactively put integrity on the agenda and make it open for discussion. Managers should openly discuss their own conflicts of interest and (wrong) choices, and explicitly make room for learning from mistakes. This can help employees feel free to discuss their own conflicts of interest. Ethical leadership makes employees feel more socially secure, which makes them more likely to report integrity issues in the organisation.

Minister's reaction

In an initial reaction to the research report, Minister De Sutter Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Civil Service, Public Enterprises, Telecommunications and Postal Services said:

There are an increasing number of people who go to work for the government after a career in the private sector or vice versa. Interests can clash when government employees switch to private. This study maps for the first time what problems there can be and how to avoid them. That's what I'm working on in the federal government.

Research team

Dr. Kim Loyens (project leader), Jesse Bruul, BSc, Julie Huijgen, BSc.

Meer information

Would you like to know more? Then please read the full report or contact Kim Loyens: k.m.loyens@uu.nl.

Download the research report ‘Draaideurconstructies en belangenconflicten’ (pdf, 1,27 MB, in Dutch)