Economy and Infrastructure

04.04.18

Public service accountability: bringing order to chaos?

Source: PSE April/May 2018

Colin Copus, professor of local politics at the Faculty of Business and Law, Local Governance Research Unit at De Montfort University, and Paul O’Brien, chief executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence, consider the options for improving accountability in local public services.

The post-war orderly arrangements for public services, with clear lines of delineation between public agencies and those served by them, have long since disappeared. New Public Management and the introduction of competition in public service delivery has had the effect of introducing new actors into the mix, often placing contracts between local elected councillors and the citizens in receipt of council services. Adding to the confusion is the plethora of cross-cutting departments and agencies that impact upon local areas but are not accountable at a local level. From welfare services to job centres, and from housing to healthcare, there is often little connection with local democracy. When things go wrong, who is answerable? And how can we prevent the things that do go wrong from happening in the first place?

In a post-Carillion world, and with the tragedy of Grenfell casting a very dark shadow over issues of local accountability, these questions are not just pertinent but essential to our understanding of local accountability. In a chaotic world, what would improve accountability in the very services that shape local places and local people?

Our new research attempts to start a debate on these issues. It is inarguable that a holistic overview of a local area will better inform both actions and outcomes. One agency acting in splendid isolation has the ability to undo the progress of others. However, what we often find is that whilst local councils are often perceived to be responsible when something goes wrong, in reality, in many areas of public life they have few options to hold different agencies to account.

Nevertheless, we would argue that as the only democratically elected body at the local level they are best placed to use the knowledge of the local area to gauge the impact of other agencies, and ensure that local networks are harnessed to work in the best interests of the area. At a strategic level, local government and its elected body of councillors are best placed to influence, shape and lead the activities of a disparate and diverse set of public service providers. It is local councils who are most able to construct activities into a coherent framework for the local place. At a ward level, it is local councillors who can readily identify public services gaps, failures or indeed successes; they have a unique operational knowledge of what is going on in the lives of local people.

However, there are huge gaps in accountability and coherent decision-making on the part of all agencies operating in local places. Even within councils, our research round-tables found that scrutiny functions are not always working well and scrutiny is sometimes perceived as a dog without teeth.

We therefore arrived at a number of possible actions that would enhance the ability of local councils to hold other agencies to account and ensure that they act in the best interests of the locality. As a starting point, scrutiny should not be seen as an add-on to other “more important” duties. Councillors need to be equipped in their role in holding external bodies to account; that means the ability to shape activities and influence policies. This should be a role for all councillors, not just a scrutiny committee function. We would also like to see better mapping of those agencies and organisations working within or impacting upon local areas. Too often there is little knowledge of those bodies that should be cooperating with local councils; mapping these agencies should help to ensure a clearer picture of influencing factors. To engage with these agencies, we also suggest an extension of the ‘duty to cooperate’ in much the same way as health scrutiny in relation to the NHS. This would provide a framework for cooperation where reasonable requests for information-sharing and coordination of roles in localities become the norm.

Local public accounts committee

Perhaps one of our more controversial asks is for a local public accounts committee. At a national level, the work of the Public Accounts Committee has brought powerful advocacy to scrutinise value for money and service standards. As a parliamentary select committee, its remit is not to question the merits of one policy over another but to ensure that it can follow the public pound and hold agencies delivering public services, including private companies, to account. The functionality of such a committee, however, needs to be far more local to ensure that fragmented and complex local public service arrangements are accountable to local people. It would need to be properly resourced – but so it should! Failing to coordinate public services and failures in those who provide them are costly.

If we take the revolving door of employment support as just one example: whilst getting someone off the claimant count is viewed as a success by the DWP, the continuous cycle of short-term, low-paid employment with little prospect of in-work progression adds little to local economies or local employers. Working across boundaries with job-seekers, the DWP, job centres, local businesses and colleges to match skills and create longer-term employability is a means to provide those better local outcomes, creating real long-term savings to the public purse.

Similarly, there is a huge role for local council services to collaborate on health outcomes from parks to leisure centres – bringing together the efforts of the NHS, GPs, mental health services and employers. The possibilities are endless, but to get to the point of bringing order to that chaos we must join up the agencies and ensure they are all rowing in the right direction.

Whilst accountability at a national level was damaged by the abolition of the Audit Commission, losing the ability to have a national-level overview, there is still a powerful case for following the taxpayer’s pound at a local level. Some appear to resent or even obstruct democratic oversight by councillors, but by binding arrangements together there is an opportunity to genuinely hold all those agencies, actors, organisations and contractors to account, ensuring that they are working in the interests of the local area as a whole and not in their own organisational interests.

The post-war clarity of who does what in the public services sphere is long gone, but that should not make it acceptable to disregard the overriding public interest. When local councils are confronted by public service providers who make decisions in isolation from local councillors, it is time to say enough is enough. Local government, as a local democratic institution, has a right to hold those to account.

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The full report can be downloaded from:
W: www.apse.org.uk

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