Editorial | Consistency is good, but transparency is better

In politics, they say, youÂ’re wise to keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. For members of the cabinet in Denmark, thatÂ’s certainly no problem, since their enemy might be one of their closest employees.

Case in point is the current tax minister, Thor Möger Pedersen. It turns out his permanent secretary – the leading civil servant at the Tax Ministry and the person responsible for day-to-day operations – is facing allegations that he was caught up in a plot to discredit the opposition leader with less than a year to go until the general election.

Pedersen, like all cabinet members in Denmark, sits at the apex of a ministerial structure that sees civil servants at all levels remain in place from one administration to the next. That means that a person who was privy to the sensitive discussions of the centre-right one day could be advising a centre-left minister the next.

Whether the allegations against Peter Loft are true or not, the existence of even the slightest shadow of doubt about whether the ministerÂ’s right-hand man might actually be more interested in backstabbing him, rather than helping him accomplish his political goals, should have us asking whether itÂ’s even possible for civil servants to serve as non-partisan political eunuchs.
The obvious answer is that they aren’t. It is unfair to expect that anyone – be they a civil servant, doctor, lawyer or journalist – can distance themselves entirely from their convictions. The question, then, is would we be better served with a system of politically-appointed senior ministry officials? When the stakes of top level politics are as high as they are, the answer has to be yes. It’s better to be transparent and partisan than consistent but occluded.

The current system certainly has its merits in the form of stability and institutional memory – Loft, for example, has been a civil servant at the Tax Ministry since 1988, the past 20 of those years serving as permanent secretary. And even though consistent Transparency International corruption rankings show public officials here to be far from corrupt, Taxgate and various other cases of abuse of public office, large and small, over the years show that Danes aren’t immune to abusing power.

Politically-appointed, legislatively approved senior cabinet officials arenÂ’t a cure-all. The approval process can be time-consuming, partisan and downright dirty. And by definition they have an agenda to push. But as Taxgate underscores, non-political civil servants might have an agenda too. The only difference is that we might not know about it until we read about it in their memoirs.