Behind closed doors

OECD Observer

“Wise men don’t need advice. Fools won’t take it,” said Benjamin Franklin. Yet, from Machiavelli through Richelieu to Kissinger, people in power have always relied on good advice from people they trust. But where should the line be drawn (rather than blurred) between influence and intrigue, cost and benefit? 

Ministerial Advisors: Role, Influence and Management indicates that the prime task of ministerial advisors, according to 95% of responses to a 2010 survey, is strategic advice in the design of policies or reforms. Their influence is felt in crisis management, diplomacy and in designing new laws and policies. Other functions include political and/or partisan advice, while two thirds of the surveyed countries emphasised media assistance.

Authoritative support can increase government responsiveness and help address strategic challenges faced by government leaders. Yet such close proximity to public decision-makers can be seen as delicate at best. In 74% of the 20 surveyed countries, ministerial advisors are answerable only to their minister, and there is little publicly available information on them. Furthermore, few countries have drawn up integrity standards specifically for ministerial advisors, and over one-third do not require ministerial advisors to disclose their private interests, including Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

Then there is the cost. Only 23% of respondent countries make public the total cost of ministerial advisors or their job descriptions, according to the OECD. BBC News reported in 2009 that the number of advisors in the UK, or “people who live in the dark”, practically doubled since 1996, with a total of 73 special advisors in 2008 costing the taxpayers £5.9 million ($10.8 million).

Although three-quarters of respondent countries report public concerns about ministerial advisors over the last decade, less than a third of them have followed up with action. However, in its case studies for Austria, Canada and the UK, the OECD describes actions for accountability, including Canada’s stipulation that ministerial advisors are subject to the same conflict of interest and post-employment ethical guidelines as ministers and deputy ministers.

OECD (2011), Ministerial Advisors: Role, Influence and Management, Paris.

©OECD Observer No 287, Q4 2011

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