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02.07.18

Accountability in government: what next?

Benoit Guerin, senior researcher at the Institute for Government (IfG), explains why accountability in government needs improving and sets out what can be done.

Government or policy failures share a common trait, namely accountability issues. It is easy to brandish accountability as a lofty answer which bears little relation to the public’s experience of public services. Yet it is an important component of a healthy democracy which, when exercised effectively, can prevent issues from arising and ensure redress when harm occurs to the public. As a hallmark of good governance, it plays a role in restoring public trust in the government.

However, the current system of government accountability in the UK is beset by weaknesses.

More than 21,000 elected officials, along with a swathe of watchdogs and inspectorates, are in charge of holding government to account in the UK. Their efforts are undermined by three factors which weaken accountability and increase the risk of failure, be it financial mismanagement, the chronic underperformance of public services, or even their collapse.

First, there is a lack of clarity about who is responsible for major decisions in Whitehall, and the consequences of good or poor performance for senior civil servants or ministers. This has affected flagship policies such as Universal Credit, with the ministers and civil servants blaming each other for the unfeasible initial timeline for rolling out the policy.

Second, accountability has failed to keep up with the realities of modern government. Since the 1980s, government has placed greater reliance on private and voluntary contractors and arm’s-length bodies to deliver public services. Yet it doesn’t effectively scrutinise the performance and value for money of the services delivered. In one instance, this meant the Ministry of Justice was overbilled millions of pounds by contractors for the electronic tagging of offenders before it spotted the issue.

Finally, the nature of the Opposition and media can lead to an emphasis on blame when something goes wrong. The tragic death of Baby P in 2007 led to widespread calls for the sacking of the head of children’s services in Haringey, who was made redundant, although several public agencies had been involved. This creates a high-stakes environment, where a perceived slip-up can end a career.

This makes it difficult for civil servants and parliamentary select committees to have frank conversations. Instead, the tendency is to resort to defensiveness. Such a culture eventually prevents any appropriate risk-taking, innovation and improvement.

What can be done?

We at the IfG have set out options for change in a discussion paper, which we want anyone interested in accountability to comment on. Some solutions are technical, but all ultimately aim to benefit the public by helping to deliver better public services and better government.

There are practical ways to transform the way that ministers and Whitehall officials can be held to account. This might involve publishing the evidence used to develop policies, which could foster better discussions within departments. Other ways to deliver better accountability in Whitehall include strengthening the formal accountability of officials, notably by expanding the role of departmental non-executive directors.

In wider public services, better scrutiny could help assess performance and needs. This could see contractors delivering public services publishing performance information. It could also involve ensuring more systematic scrutiny of issues that matter to the public, for example through bodies examining the value for money of services delivered locally. Would it be worth setting up an independent body responsible for authoritatively and independently interpreting information on the performance of public services? This could create data which Parliament and the public could use, and raise the quality of the debate.

Beyond the solutions we highlight for Whitehall and within public services, we suggest ideas to help change the culture of accountability. For one, better-quality discussions between government and parliamentary committees could help steer discussions towards improvement rather than blame. At the same time, we recognise that moving away from a culture of blame requires changes at all levels, not just new structures.

Top image: c. Robert Ingelhart 

 

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