Beyond the Revolving Door

LONDON – “Honestly,” said Bill Gates during the COP21 meeting in Paris earlier this month, “I’ve been a bit surprised that the climate talks historically haven’t had R&D on the agenda in any way, shape, or form.” So am I, and the question Gates raises goes to the heart of the relationship between business and government in solving our societies’ toughest problems, from ensuring the planet’s continued habitability to fostering stable and inclusive economic growth.

To be sure, in some areas, government authorities simply don’t consider making business a part of the solution early on. The most striking recent example is the ongoing refugee crisis: Governments in Europe and around the world still don’t fully include business in early-stage thinking about how to manage the flow of asylum-seekers. Granted, in many cases business leaders have chosen to remain on the sideline; but both they and governments need to adjust their thinking.

But in other areas, companies are more than eager to step up, be seen and heard, and exercise influence. When it comes to technology, R&D, trade talks, and the like, the benefit for companies’ bottom line is direct and clear, and here Gates’ surprise is understandable, because corporate leaders typically lobby to participate and change the way governments think and act.

And yet dangers arise when business gets too close to government. Sometimes the risk entails the proverbial “revolving door” between government and business, through which personnel glide from senior private-sector jobs to top official posts and back again. It is a cycle that often resembles the fox guarding the henhouse, with those who regulate too close to those whom they regulate.