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Two revolvig doors Photo: Daniel Karmann/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Self-serving public service

John Blau
January 9, 2014

The Ronald Pofalla case in Germany is the latest demonstration of a faster-revolving door between the public and private sectors. Critics demand a timeout. But are there any international examples of such limits?


Two terms are often used in the context of individuals leaving public office to take up a job in the private sector: the "revolving door" and a "cooling-off period."

The revolving door can move in two directions - from the public sector to the private sector and vice versa - but it's the public-to-private moves that tend to cause the most friction. Public officials, whether elected or appointed, frequently move to more lucrative private-sector positions where they can leverage their government experience and connections.

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is a prime example. After leaving office, he took a well-paid lobbying job with the Russian natural gas giant Gazprom. Russia is a major supplier of natural gas to Germany and as chancellor Schröder also promoted energy deals with Russia.

Strengthening legal frameworks

Some politicians like Schröder become lobbyists after leaving government while others return to their law practices or manage companies.

Most developed countries aren't officially against revolving-door moves when a politician's term is up. Their governments realize that the movement of skilled experts between sectors brings innovation and different perspectives to businesses. But, at the same time, they see a need to establish new or strengthen existing legal frameworks to ensure transparency and curb abuse in switching sectors.

Merkel and Pofalla Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Chancellor Merkel is not one to keep close advisors from taking lucrative jobsImage: Getty Images

That's were the cooling-off period comes in. As its name implies, it's all about setting aside a stretch of time before government officials can start a job, especially one that would benefit from their insider knowledge and contacts.

Germany has no such cooling-off period, and its lobbying rules are lax. Some opposition parties, however, hope to change this. The Greens, for one, are demanding a three-year cooling-off period three years and the Left party as many as five.

Post-employment restrictions

The Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden and Switzerland also have no post-employment restrictions, according to Transparency International. But a few countries, including Ireland and Poland, have introduced a one-year policy, and others, such as Norway and the United Kingdom, have gone even further.

The UK recently tightened its revolving-door regulations, according to Corporate Europe Observatory. Under the new rules, the highest-level officials have an automatic cooling-off period for any outside appointment or employment of at least three months after leaving paid public service. The period can be waived, in special cases, but can also be extended by up to two years.

Gerhard Schröder in front of a Gazprom logo AP Photo/ Alexander Zemlianichenko
Former Chancellor Schröder is now in the private sectorImage: AP

All senior officials are banned from lobbying the government on behalf of a new employer for two years. For more junior staff, authorization for a new job is required if that official has been involved in developing policy or holding sensitive information or in crafting regulatory decisions relevant to the prospective employer.

The European Union has a "code of conduct" that was revised in 2011 to include an 18-month ban lobbying on the same topics covered by their portfolio for Commissioners leaving office. Lobbying is a big business with this group: Nearly 40 percent of the 92 EU Commissioners between 1981 and 2009 either worked or still work as lobbyists, according to LobbyControl. Brussels has an estimated 3,000 lobbying entities.

Lifetime ban

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), however, is demanding a three-year cooling-offer period on lobby jobs and real-time transparency on revolving-door moves. The activist group is also calling for a cooling-off period between two to three years for junior and senior staff respectively, up from the current one-year rule.

The United States, with perhaps the most lobbyists in the world, has toughed up its position on revolving doors. That was one of President Barak Obama's first acts in office.

Brarack Obama at a press conference Photo: EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS pixel
Obama moved fast to control the 'revolving door' and 'switching sides'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

US federal employees in the executive branch of government are restricted from performing certain post-employment activities for certain private parties. These include a lifetime ban on "switching sides" to the private sector on specific issues for which an official was responsible while in public service, and a two-year ban on switching sides on a broader range of issues.

Canada has issued its Conflict of Interest Act, which provides general rules for avoiding conflicts interest, LobbyControl noted. Among the rules: public servants in executive positions are prohibited for one year after the end of their term from accepting appointments with entities they personally or through subordinates had a significant official relationship. They are also forbidden during that year from giving advice to their clients using insider information.

Despite moves by several countries to tighten their laws on post-government employment, many have yet to institute crucial revolving-door and cooling-off safeguards, "thus exposing themselves to risks of corruption and fueling distrust among the public," according to Transparency International.

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