4 November 2014

A 180 degree turn last week by the UK Cabinet Office is example of how we see things involving others with a clarity which escapes us when we have a personal involvement.  When the appointment of John Manzoni as the chief executive of the Civil Service was announced  several months ago, the Cabinet Office indicated that there would be no conflict if he continued as a director at SABMillers, one of the largest transnational brewers, although he would give up another directorship and an advisory role with a third board.

Even someone with a minimal understanding of public sector ethics would see major and unavoidable conflicts.  The business of making and marketing alcohol is entangled in regulatory regimes. The interface with public health, public order and public revenue is unmistakeable Yet somehow, Ministers responsible for making very senior appointments in the British government, thought that one of the most highly paid civil servants would not only have time to spare to serve in the private sector as an executive director, but that accepting a director’s fee of £100,000 to champion the brewer’s interests was of no consequence.

The pathos in the situation is not only did those making the appointment not see the problem, but the appointee, selected for his excellence, intellect, insight, and integrity, seems to have been equally divorced from reality.  Or perhaps, captured by his exceptional capabilities, he believed he was special, would avoid conflicts and could negate any perception by others that there was potential for conflicts.

When the light of growing public criticism starting shining through this blinkeredness, the Cabinet Office issued a statement that the appointee would not accept the remuneration – as if the concern was only about accepting the director’s fee.  This just magnified concern. How could it possibly be acceptable for a senior civil servant to donate his services to a major player in the liquor industry? The rationale of course was that continued involvement in the governance of a substantial international business had interchangeable experiences which would benefit the Civil Service.

Unable to diffuse an increasing focus on the implications of this secondary employment, a further remedial attempt by the Cabinet Office has been to announce that the chief executive will give up the SABMillers directorship “next summer”, and that in the meantime he will carry out his director’s duties in his own time. This of course brings the value of the directorship into question.  If performing those duties is advantageous, why must they be carried out in his own time?

Media reports are that the John Manzoni has a substantial shareholding in SABMillers which was passed to a blind trust in anticipation of his appointment.  His enthusiasm for retaining his directorship together with that shareholding suggests that he has a strong and continuing interest in the company’s wellbeing. Remaining disinterested with these interests may be a stretch of human nature.