Think tank backs call for civil service ‘compliance function’ after Greensill scandal

IfG says perm secs should lead a culture change in departments following Boardman Review recommendations
Former prime minister David Cameron lobbied top ministers and officials on behalf of Greensill Capital. Photo: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

By Jim Dunton

08 Oct 2021

Top department officials should drive a culture change in relation to monitoring outside business interests of their staff in the wake of the Greensill scandal and a new compliance function should be created to make sure rules are being followed, the Institute for Government has said.

The think tank’s call came in a response to the second part of Nigel Boardman’s review of the government’s use of supply-chain finance and the Greensill affair, which makes 19 recommendations for change in relation to lobbying of government .

Boardman’s original probe into the lobbying activities of Lex Greensill and former prime minister David Cameron was published over the summer. It sought to establish the facts around the affair, which also saw the government’s chief commercial officer Bill Crothers “double hatting” for Greensill at the same time as being a civil servant.  

Boardman’s follow-up recommendations were published last month, while prime minister Boris Johnson’s reshuffle was ongoing, and were largely overlooked at the time. They include the establishment of a cross-government compliance function which would have enforcement powers over civil servants and contractors and be overseen by a central Cabinet Office team.

The function’s remit would include conflicts of interest, lobbying, whistleblowing, pre-appointments, business appointments, secondary employment, dealings in securities, fraud and transparency.

Boardman said that over time the function should “seek to consolidate all the various strands of compliance” that the Committee on Standards in Public Life has previously dubbed a “patchwork”.

He also called for the introduction of “pre-appointment” rules that would stop newly-hired civil servants from lobbying on behalf of their former employers for a specified period of time. Another recommendation was that accounting-officer level approval should be required for second jobs held by senior civil servants. Boardman said details of approvals should be published unless there were compelling reasons not to do so, such as security concerns.

In a report published this week, IfG associate director Tim Durrant said the think tank welcomes the approach to enforcement that Boardman set out.

“Organisational culture is as important as rules for ensuring ethical behaviour,” he said. “The establishment of a compliance function in government departments would hopefully help to embed a culture whereby individuals are expected to actively ensure they are adhering to the rules, rather than just assuming that so long as nothing goes wrong they are doing enough.”

Durrant added that it is vital for departmental leaders – both officials and politicians – to drive change.

“Changes to standards and behaviour are as much about culture as they are about rules and enforcement and this is set by the example of those at the top,” he said.

“Boardman argues that ‘example and exhortation’ are needed to ensure that the government learns from the Greensill scandal. That example must come from senior officials, from permanent secretaries down, but also from the prime minister.”

Durrant said prime minister Boris Johnson's attitude to upholding standards has “not always met expectations”. He also noted that the low-key nature of the publication of Boardman’s recommendations, coupled with the departure of Michael Gove from the Cabinet Office, called into question the government’s commitment to “embed them into the culture of government”.

The Cabinet Office said Boardman's recommendations had been highlighted in a written minister statement when they were published on 16 September.

“As the report recognises, the government has committed to continually reinforcing high standards of conduct in public life so the public can have trust and confidence in the operation of government at all levels," a Cabinet Office spokesperson said.

“We will carefully consider Mr Boardman’s recommendations, along with the ongoing work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and we will respond in due course.”

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