I’m reviewing the code of conduct of special advisers to the UK government.
It’s an interesting read which lists in quite some detail a lot regarding the role, status and transparency with which special advisers to the UK government should operate. It also talks about how contact with the media should be handled, and how involvement of politics in a private capacity can be undertaken.
As a form of background, Special Advisers in the UK are classed as temporary civil servants in the different legislatures of the countries that make up the UK, and are thus exempt from being appointed based on merit. However, that doesn’t make them exempt from accountability or scrutiny over their actions.
So you might ask what does that have to do with Malawi? Well, since Malawi has seen quite a fair share of controversy and other drama involving political aides, presidential advisers and even a president’s bodyguard, considering an election is just around the corner it seems topical to venture into this topic at this time.
Anyhow, among the stipulations of the Code of Conduct are that Special Advisers may:
- give assistance on any aspect of departmental business, and give advice (including expert advice as a specialist in a particular field);
- undertake long term policy thinking and contribute to policy planning within the Department;
- write speeches and undertake related research, including adding party political content to material prepared by permanent civil servants;
- liaise with the Party, briefing party representatives and parliamentarians on issues of government policy;
- represent the views of their Minister to the media (including a party viewpoint), where they have been authorised by the Minister to do so; and
- liaise with outside interest groups (including those with a political allegiance)
In working with Civil Servants, Special Advisers can
- convey to officials Ministers’ views, instructions and priorities, including on issues of presentation. .
- request officials to prepare and provide information and data, including internal analyses and papers;
- hold meetings with officials to discuss the advice being put to Ministers; and
- review and comment on –but not suppress or supplant –advice being prepared for Ministers by civil servants.
It’s important to note that when undertaking their duties, Special Advisers are not doing so in their own capacities, but on behalf of their minister / the government.
However, Special Advisers may not:
- ask civil servants to do anything which is inconsistent with their obligations under the Civil Service Code or behave in a way which would be inconsistent with standards set by their employing department;
- authorise expenditure of public funds or have responsibility for budgets;
- exercise any power in relation to the management of any part of the Civil Service,except in relation to another special adviser;or
- otherwise exercise any statutory or prerogative power.
All important and necessary stuff . Necessary because when it is broken, there are usually consequences. Obviously, the UK’s troubles are not like the problems we face in Malawi. In fact you might say their problems are rather tame, than some of the allegations special advisers have been accused of in Malawi. And that’s why the part of public funds is in bold.
The Code of Conduct goes onto say that:
Special advisers are able to give direction to such civil servants in relation to their day-to-day work for them, and their views should be sought as an input to performance appraisals on the basis that these are written by other civil servants. However,special advisers should not be involved in the line management of civil servants in matters affecting a civil servant’s career such as recruitment, promotion, reward and discipline, or have access to personnel files of civil servants.
It also says the following:
Special advisers are bound by the standards of integrity and honesty required of all civil servants as set out in the Civil Service Code.
Special advisers should not disclose official information which has been communicated in confidence in government or received in confidence from others. The Preparation or dissemination of inappropriate material or personal attacks has no part to play in the job of being a special adviser as it has no part to play in the conduct of public life.
Special advisers must not take public part in political controversy,through any form of statement whether in speeches or letters to the press, or in books, social media, articles or leaflets. They must observe discretion and express comment with moderation, avoiding personal attacks, and would not normally speak in public for their Minister or the Department
Special advisers are required to declare details of gifts and hospitality received in accordance with the rules set out in their departmental staff handbooks. Departments will publish,on a quarterly basis, information about gifts and hospitality received by their departmental special advisers and details of special advisers’ meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors, editors and senior executives.
It goes on and on.
Now, given the perilous history of political advisers and presidential aides in Malawi, and what we know of how such people have behaved, especially in terms of amassing unexplained wealth, or otherwise being caught up or named in one scandal or another, shouldn’t Malawi’s next Government ensure that there is a strong and functional Code of Conduct for Political Advisers?
I think it is of the utmost urgency for Malawi’s next government to have an effective Code of Conduct for Political Advisers. It should be drafted with a view to curbing the corruption that has embroiled Political Advisers in Malawi’s history. The Code of Conduct must be drafted by an independent panel of legal professionals and CSOs, and must be reviewed every 3 years to ensure it is functional and fit for purpose.
Further, and in the interest of curbing corrupt practices, a new supranational body, the National Fraud Agency (NFA) with powers to levy fines, powers to cancel contracts which are not in the best interest of the country, and with powers to impound, detain and forfeit goods, and to go after foreign property of officials or citizens (which is suspected of being bought using the proceeds of corruption) should be established specifically to look at the issue of declaration of assets, to scrutinise government spending, tender awards and contracts, and to prevent extortionate prices being charged for goods supplied to the Malawi government. The NFA can work with the Anti-corruption Bureau, but it has to be independent of the ACB, and parliament and PAC should establish a framework that decides how the NFA’s powers are to be exercised. This is important to make sure that the theft of public resources that has occured in the past in one guise or another, perpetrated by public officials including ministers, should be firmly put to an end.
Thus, such a Code of Conduct together with an NFA would encourage transparency and accountability, and would establish a high standard of ethics in Malawi’s politics. It would also ensure that if wrong-doing occurs, a course of action that swiftly and resolutely rectifies the situation can be implemented. It means unscrupulous officials can be cut off from the business of government sooner than later, and cannot run away abroad with the proceeds of corruption. It means every political adviser would know in black and white exactly the type of dutiful conduct which is expected of them.