Friday Group Charter for Ministerial cabinets

Sign the charter here

I. Introduction: role of a Ministerial cabinet, and scope of this charter

Belgium’s institutional complexity and proportional voting system have led its consecutive governments to form counterintuitive alliances with as many as 6 different partners with often ideologically divergent political views. The government agreement materializes the fragile political equilibria and balance of power between the different coalition partners and is considered a policy deadlock. The Ministerial cabinets’ are in charge not only in executing the government agreement, they are also its guardians.

If in most European countries, and indeed even at the European level, cabinets count not more than a handful of advisors, Belgian Ministers however can have up to 30-40 collaborators because they sometimes substitute themselves to the administration. Combined, Belgium’s 51 Ministers directly employ more than a thousand people, a vast majority of them being policy advisors.

Hence the Ministers’ entourage has de facto been given an important, yet almost invisible role in Belgium’s institutional landscape. Despite their crucial place in Belgium’s democratic machinery, be it at the Federal or at the Regional level, they draw very little attention. Not from the media and public at large, but more worrisomely not even from the Legislator. They are, for example, not concerned by the Royal decree of 1937 or fall under the supervision of the Bureau for administrative deontology.

In other countries where the political landscape is less complex and Ministerial cabinets smaller, very often special codes of conduct have been drafted to make sure the members of the cabinet act according to the most basic democratic rules, governance principles and deontological values. Not so in Belgium.

This is the reason why The Friday Group decided to draft this charter of political deontology for both Federal and Regional Ministerial cabinets. It was written from a principle based approach because we want to minimize the risk of cabinets working more under the waterline, or of regulatory capture, which are more likely to be an issue with a rule-based approach.

II. Charter

1. General provisions

1.1. Ministerial advisers shall perform their duties with integrity and in a loyal and accurate manner under the authority of the Minister who bears the political responsibility. This means, among other things:

  • compliance with the laws, regulations and guidelines,
  • careful and conscientious implementation of the decisions made by the Government.

1.2. Ministerial advisers shall notify their Minister of any illegal or irregular activities of which they have knowledge.

1.3. Ministerial advisers should conduct themselves with integrity and honesty. They should not deceive or knowingly mislead the Government, Parliament or the public.

1.4. Ministerial advisers should not use official resources for party political activity. They are employed to serve the objectives of the Government and the Department in which they work. It is this which justifies their being paid from public funds and being able to use public resources, and explains why their participation in party politics should be carefully limited.

1.5. As is the case for administrations, cabinets shall reflect the social diversity (gender, ethno cultural background, sexual orientation, age and physical disabilities) as far as possible. The recruitment procedure is aligned accordingly.

1.6. Ministerial advisers have the right to attend training programmes that are useful for their job, as well as to continued education with a view to their career development.

2. Handling information

2.1. Ministerial advisers should not misuse their official position or information acquired in the course of their official duties to further their or others’ private interests. They should not, without authority, disclose official information which has been communicated in confidence in Government or received in confidence from others.  

2.2. A Ministerial adviser benefits from the freedom of speech regarding the facts which he is familiar with thanks to his position. However, he must not take public part in political controversy whether in speeches or letters to the press, or in books, articles or leaflets; must observe discretion and express comment with moderation, avoiding personal attacks; and would not normally speak in public for their Minister or the Department, unless they have explicitly been asked to by their Minister. Anyone who is officially or unofficially representing a Minister cannot be paid for that engagement.

2.3. Ministerial advisers shall not disclose any facts regarding the security of the country, the protection of public order, the financial interests of the government, the prevention and sanctioning of criminal offences, medical confidentiality, the rights and freedoms of citizens, and, in particular, regarding the right to the respect of private life.

3. Transparency and conflicts of interest

3.1. Ministerial advisers shall in no way whatsoever exercise a remunerated activity outside of their office without having previously obtained the authority for cumulation from their Minister. In other words, ministerial advisers shall notify their Minister of any remunerated activity.

3.2. On the official government portal the names and functions of the members of the different Ministerial cabinets can be found. The webpage should include all paid activities and mandates of each and every Ministerial advisor, as well as an indication of the time spent on these activities.

3.3. A conflict of interest means a situation in which a ministerial advisor, either on his own account or through an intermediary, has a personal benefit of such a nature that it could impact the impartial and objective performance of his duties, or could give rise to the impression that such an impact exists. Ministerial advisors shall not put themselves into a situation of conflicting interests, unless such potential conflicts of interest have been notified to the Court of Auditors and can be looked up on the above-mentioned portal (3.2.).

3.4. When a conflict between a Ministerial advisor’s private interest and their public duty arises, like defined under 3.3., and despite having followed the requirements stipulated in 3.2., the conflict of interest must be notified in the minutes of the meeting.

3.5. The opportunity of having members of cabinets being on different, sometimes conflicting payrolls, can only be debated once this full transparency has been achieved.

3.6. A correct record of those leaving the administrations in favour of the cabinets has been set up on the centralised portal (3.1.)8. The chief cabinet secretary is responsible for communicating the information and ensures it is correct.

4. Dealing with lobbyists and third parties

4.1. A Belgian register of licensed lobby organizations is made publically available

4.2. Ministerial advisers are not to permit lobbying by a lobbyist who is not listed on the register of lobbyists.

4.3. When making an initial contact with a Government Representative about a particular issue on behalf of a third party for whom the Lobbyist has provided paid or unpaid services, the Lobbyist must inform the Government Representative:

  • that they are a Lobbyist or employee, contractor or person otherwise engaged by the lobbyist who is currently listed on the register of lobbyists;
  • that they are making the contact on behalf of a third party;
  • the name of the third party;
  • and the nature of that third party’s issue.

4.4. Every cabinet should keep a logbook of all contacts with lobbyists. This information will be analyzed by the Court of Audit if Parliament requires it to do so and will report on a yearly basis no later than July 1st of the following year.

4.5. Ministerial advisers may not request or demand any gifts, rewards or advantages, either directly or through an intermediary, even outside of their office, but on account of it. Gifts with a purely symbolic value or invitations for which the market price is below or equal to 50 euros are permitted if they do not have a systematic nature.

4.6. Expenses covered by a third party, have to be made public and cannot exceed the average market value.

4.7. In view of the problems of the professional follow-up at the end of the mandate, regulations are currently being developed for the handover and transition period for ministerial advisers who are leaving office.

5. Final provision

These rules should be considered a contractual engagement from every member of cabinet by agreeing to this deontological code.

III. Main policy recommendations

Regarding ministerial cabinets

1. An intergovernmental deontological charter should be drafted, published and endorsed by every Minister and his/her cabinet. If need be, this draft charter can give some inspiration.

2. On the official government portal the names and functions of the members of the different Ministerial cabinets can be found. The webpage should include all paid activities and mandates of each and every Ministerial advisor, as well as an indication of the time spent on these activities.

3. A correct record of those leaving the administrations in favour of the cabinets has been set up on the centralised portal.

4. In view of the problems of the professional follow-up at the end of the mandate, the Court of Audit will be asked to develop regulations for the handover and transition period of ministerial advisers who are leaving office.

5. A training programme for ministerial advisers is called for, especially with regard to the study of ethics, and a theoretical introduction to the basic skills of ministerial advisers that they may not possess (administrative law, public finance, constitutional law, government organisation, operation of the parliament, etc.). Every participant will be asked to sign the Charter at the end of the training programme.

6. A joint Master in Public Administration is to be developed at a Belgian level, under the auspices of leading politicians and prominent civil servants/ministerial advisers. Attendance is based on a dossier and after a minimum of three years experience.

7. At the same time as reducing the size of the cabinets, the administrations must eventually take on a more active role in defining policies in order to ensure that long-term objectives are pursued.

8. A permanent apolitical cabinet secretariat with an official status is responsible for the transition period between ministers, and is the contact point for the competent administration with regard to everyday processes.

9. Ministers should be able to rely on Selor with regard to the recruitment of the cabinets. Competence and expertise-based recruitment should thereby be the objective.

Regarding lobbies

10. The federal government develops a Belgian lobby register following European and Australian examples.

11. Moreover, every cabinet should keep a logbook of all contacts with lobbyists. This information will be analyzed by the Court of Audit if required by Parliament, and will report on a yearly basis no later than July 1st of the following year.

12. As is the case in Ireland and Australia, a lobbyists code should be drafted: http://lobbyists.pmc.gov.au/conduct_code.cfm

Sign the charter here

Footnotes

1. Trends / Tendances, February 19 2015.

2. Except for Flanders, where the Flemish Government approved the “Decree on the organisation of the cabinets of the members of the Flemish Government” in 2009. This Decree is primarily concerned with the practical organisation of the Flemish cabinets (number of employees per minister, secondment, remuneration, etc.), and less so with the ethical context within which ministerial advisors should  act. In this sense, this Charter was not only written to provide inspiration to the Federal Government and the other federal states, but should also be considered as a much needed supplement to the Flemish Decree of 24 July 2009.

3. In the UK, for example, they are called “special advisers” and their role has delicately been described as “to help Ministers on matters where the work of Government and the work of the Government Party overlap and where it would be inappropriate for permanent civil servants to become involved. […] They are an additional resource for the Minister providing assistance from a standpoint that is more politically committed and politically aware than would be available to a Minister from the permanent Civil Service”. On paper, these ‘special advisors’ are subject to very strict rules when it comes to political involvement, career possibilities once their mandate ends, possible conflicts of interests, etc.  

4. Some hold a more liberal view, whereby the Minister is 100 % politically responsible for the choices he/she makes and the actions of the staff – including when, for example, manifest conflicts of interest occur. Although most members of the Friday Group have some sympathy with this view, they also suggest that there is not enough information available to assess Ministers objectively in today’s context. Transparency is the cornerstone for the ethical operation of the ministerial cabinets. Too much asymmetry in information is an obstacle to sound civilian evaluation and control. The region of Western Australia, on the other hand, has a more liberal vision on the operation of cabinets, as is also clear from their “Ministerial code”: “A Minister will also be responsible for ensuring that members of his or her Ministerial staff are made aware of their ethical responsibilities and will require of staff such disclosure, divestment of personal interests or other action as seems appropriate to the Minister and the Premier”.

5. Regulatory capture is a form of political corruption that occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or special concerns of interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating.

6. This charter is based on several discussions between the members of the group (06/12/’13 – 27/11/’14 and 10/12/’14) and the following sources:

De Morgen

Royal decree of 1937 (art. 7-14 ter)

The Ministerial code of conduct of Western Australia

The code of conduct of special advisors in the UK 

7. In the UK, special advisors’ pay is also public: link

8. It is noteworthy that this aspect in the Flemish Decree of 24 July 2009 is regulated in a very transparent manner (Art. 20), and, in this sense, could also serve as inspiration for the other federal states and at the federal level. Remarkable is that § 2 of the same Article provides that the salary of ministerial advisors who are not part of a ministry, another public service or a subsidised educational institute can continue to receive payment from their employer.
Ministerial advisors can therefore be officially on the payroll of private players, and this causes concern among the Friday Group in terms of potential conflicts of interest. As also provided in items 3.3 and 3.5, it is therefore of crucial importance that this information is made public, following which an informed debate can take place.

9. Quite some time was spent during the discussions of the group to define a lobbyist. Eventually, we agreed on the following: “A lobbyist is an intermediary person or organization who tries to influence policymaking for lucrative purposes. Non-profit organizations can also pursue lucrative objectives through lobbying activities and are therefore considered being a part of the scope of this definition.” Interestingly so, this description is relatively close to what the Western Australian Ministerial code of conduct considers to be a lobbyist: “means a person, body corporate, unincorporated association, partnership or firm whose business includes being contracted or engaged to represent the interests of a third party to a Government Representative. Lobbyist does not include:

(a) an association or organisation constituted to represent the interests of its members;

(b) a religious or charitable organisation; or

(c) an entity or person whose business is a recognised technical or professional occupation which, as part of the services provided to third parties in the course of that occupation, represents the views of the third party who has engaged it to provide their technical or professional services.”

Moreover, different countries and organisations can provide the necessary inspiration for a Lobbyists code:

Ireland

Australia

The Public Relations Council

10. The UK has a very strict policy on this matter: “Special advisers are subject to the Business Appointment Rules. Under the Rules, they are required to submit an application to the Head of their former Department for any appointments or employment they wish to take up within two years of leaving the Civil Service. Applications submitted by special advisers are considered by the independent Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.”