With anything between 15-30,000 lobby organisations in Brussels vying for the attention of policy makers, it can often be a challenge just to get a meeting and get your story heard. Which is why it was a nice surprise last December to be contacted by the private office of the new Commissioner for the EU Budget and Human Resources, Kristalina Georgieva, to inquire if we could post them some copies of our study of corruption risks in the EU institutions – the EU Integrity Study.
But perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. Georgieva has quietly built herself a reputation as a highly competent and proactive Commissioner in her five years overseeing the EU’s humanitarian aid programmes, and her new role requires her to implement a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy to fraud and corruption in EU spending, as well as overseeing the policies that safeguard the integrity of EU staff, such as rules that regulate the ‘revolving door’ between the Commission and the private sector. Moreover, the Juncker Commission has been quick to establish its transparency credentials, and since December has been publishing a list of all meetings between lobbyists and Commissioners, as well as senior officials (with notable exceptions).
So in some ways it was apt that Georgieva was the first member of the new Commission to meet with Transparency International this week. We used the opportunity to hear more about what is happening on some of the key recommendations in our report – improvements to whistleblowing policies, how to better regulate potential conflicts of interest associated with the revolving door, and more transparency on the EU’s system of debarring or ‘blacklisting’ corrupt companies, and so preventing them from getting EU contracts. The good news here is that the Commission is planning to make public the names of all companies (and in some cases individuals) that a special panel will exclude from EU contract tenders on grounds of corruption.
But it was also an opportunity to hear about the Commissioner’s overarching philosophy and a number of guiding principles for her work emerged in the course of the meeting. We summarise these below, along with our view on what the implications should be for the integrity and transparency of the Commission’s work.
1. The Commission needs to move from a focus on compliance to a focus on performance: This is welcome. As our study has pointed out, rules governing ethics and access to documents are complex and inconsistent, and there is an obsession with observing the letter of the law without considering the overall purpose of the rule or system. There is also a tendency to tinker with the rules rather than ensure that existing rules are properly monitored and enforced. Revolving door restrictions can be fine-tuned, but this is to no effect if there is no systematic or proactive contact with former officials regarding their obligations to avoid conflicts of interest after they leave service. Similarly, although the Commission’s whistleblowing framework is ahead of other EU institutions, it’s not clear to what extent whistleblowing channels are actually used and whether they are helping to uncover cases of corruption and other wrongdoing. We were pleased to hear that this is something the Commission will look at in its review of whistleblowing guidelines this year.
2. Simplicity is a means to enhanced transparency. Or conversely, complexity is a driver of corruption. This applies to a whole suite of rules on ethics and financial transactions. There is a need to simplify the system to make it clearer to Commission staff and to those to whom they are accountable. To take the revolving door rules once again, it would be much simpler in our view to have a cooling off period for all staff who wish to engage in lobbying work, not just for senior permanent officials as is the case at the moment. This should be seen as a way of limiting influence-peddling, rather than staff mobility.
3. Information is not transparency. Again, we couldn’t agree more. There is a vast amount of information on the Commission’s activities and funding available online, but scattered over dozens, maybe hundreds of websites, often in formats that make it impossible to compare or analyse, or with restrictions on how it can be re-used. A one-stop shop for all of the Commission’s financial and other data is well overdue. This should also be linked to the Transparency Register and the information on lobby meetings (now currently scattered over 89 different websites). Commissioner Georgieva is well aware of the problem and has tried to tackle it in her former role at DG ECHO by centralising public data on aid expenditure. Greater budget and financial transparency will be a major theme of her new role, but it is a formidable task. Our advice is not to rely only on in-house solutions, but to look at innovative academics and transparency campaigners around the EU are doing to improve the usability and relevance of this information.
4. Do more with less. This of course is the cry of cash-strapped public administrations around the world and the Commission is no exception as it implements across-the-board cuts in staff and budgets over the next five years, but here again proactive transparency can be a part of the solution. The Commission processes over 6,000 access to documents requests every year and about 80% are granted in full or partially. Imagine how much resource it could save if it published all these documents on a one-stop transparency portal from the get-go?
As we said, it’s not clear if the Commissioner would fully endorse the implications we draw from these principles, but there are welcome signs of fresh thinking on what have become knotty and intractable problems. There is in any case a clear alignment of objectives and values, and it only remains to be seen how they are realised. The Commission has made a promising start in such areas as lobbying transparency and transparency of trade negotiations, and Georgieva’s personal assessment was ‘so far, so good’. We concur. But these are baby steps on a long and difficult road to a genuine culture of proactive transparency, and new administrations often suffer reform fatigue long before they get there. Commissioner Georgieva will need all her evident energy and drive if she is to stay the course.