Letter from London: Conflicts of interest are about management, not elimination

Conflicts of interest are about management, not elimination

18 November 2021, Paul Finch

The fuss about ‘sleaze’ in respect of the UK political class has managed to elide a series of issues which are related but need to be treated separately. Moreover, some of them affect people in all walks of life, including architecture.

Take ‘conflict of interest’ for example. It is almost impossible to gather a significant number of professionals in one place without there being multiple connections between many of them. We notice this at World Architecture Festival, which can sometimes resemble a big reunion party, involving people who have studied together, as both undergraduates and graduates; who have taught (or been taught by) others present; who have worked in the same office, or on the same project from different offices; and who may be connected in some other way, for example as a result of work for a professional institute, or special interest organization.

There is of course nothing wrong with this. However, what happens if you are on a selection panel and somebody who falls into one of the above categories is a competitor? Do you say it would be impossible for you to assess their suitability? I had the pleasure taking part in just such a panel recently, for a large housing development in Moscow. Of the six practices competing, I knew personally the founder partners of five of them.

In this instance I felt to need to declare any conflict of interest because in my job, I meet hundreds of architects every year. It would be different, however, if I had been commissioned to write a book about the work of one of them at the same time that judging was taking place. That would surely be a conflict of interest (or could reasonably be perceived to be such). But suppose I had written the book ten years ago?

This raises questions about judgement and integrity. In the UK we have tried to deal with conflicts of interest via a series of principles (the Nolan principles) which should govern behaviour in public life in respect of these matters. The critical point that makes the principles relevant is the requirement for potential conflicts to be declared. This is an intelligent response to a complex situation. It invites anybody who thinks they might have a conflict of interest to put the facts on the table and let others come to judgement about how important the conflict is. Conflicts are inevitable: it is how they are managed which is important.

Politicians duck and dive over this issue across the world. In some cultures, it is almost taken for granted that ‘a politician who is poor is a poor politician’. Here, there is a growing clamour to ban our Members of Parliament from having ‘second jobs’ – though nobody has satisfactorily explained how it is that government ministers, and their Opposition ‘shadows’, manage to combine their constituency duties as MPs with full-time jobs running departments (or pretending to).

There are some double standards at work in all this. It is assumed that a financial interest is bad, but an ideological interest is somehow different. The consequences of the second might be considerably worse than the first. Does lobbying for something if you are not being paid mean what you are doing is automatically virtuous? Surely not.

Unfortunately, the business of second jobs has become muddled with that of lobbying by MPs who turn out to be earning substantial sums from companies interested in benign outcomes (for them) as a result of their Parliamentary poodle’s activities. The latter is rightly to be condemned and is more often than not something that is hidden or disguised rather than honestly declared. That does not properly deal, however, with the importance of interests being represented in democratic debates. If an MP or member of the House of Lords happens to be an architect, is it not appropriate for them to speak on the subject and proselytise on behalf of good design and its desirable outcomes? It is easy enough to regard any politician’s comments about a subject with which they are familiar as special pleading. But isn’t that in the end how decisions get made – by assessing the merits of arguments put by people who are not neutral?

I welcome the existence of special interest groups within Parliament, pursuing what they regard as worthy causes. Who wants an elected body full of people who are neutral on all subjects? Why would you elect them? What would they have to say? That is surely the task of civil servants, inasmuch as neutrality is ever possible, as they advise ministers on how to achieve their policy aims if they are indeed achievable.

No architect, designer, planner or engineer should ever feel embarrassed about arguing their corner for high standards and the importance of their professions – especially in the comprised world of party politics. Standing up to be counted is not so different from declaring a conflict of interest.

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