Lack of accountability risks collapse of public services

Weak accountability increases the risk of failure of public services, the Institute for Government (IfG) has warned.

An IfG report, ‘Accountability in modern government,’ says that this failure may be through financial mismanagement, chronic underperformance or the collapse of services.

The report, published yesterday, finds that the same pattern of failure occur repeatedly, with ministers and civil servants blaming each other when things go wrong, which it argues limits the chances of learning lessons and avoiding future mistakes.

When failures are “clearly attributable” to ministers, the report says that many are not held to account for their decisions. For example, those responsible for the outsourcing of probation services were never called to justify why they opted for “risky and ultimately wasteful approaches.”

It also finds that poor contract management can often result in wider public service failures, highlighting the recent collapse of Carillion as evidence of the importance of tackling these problems systematically.

The report argues that the UK’s current system of accountability is not keeping up with the realities of modern government, leading to “repeated failures which harm the public and undermine trust in institutions.”

When something goes wrong there is a tendency to overemphasise blame, creating a “high-stake environment” where a “perceived slip-up” can end a career.

Benoit Guerin from the IfG said: “Accountability helps people know how the government is doing and where to go when things go wrong.

“A lack of accountability is worrying because it increases the risk of failure and decreases legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the public.”

The report forms part of a project exploring how democratic accountability in government can be improved.

Geurin explained: “With this project, we want to start a debate about how accountability in the public sector could be strengthened with the aim of making recommendations for reform.

“We welcome contributions from those interested in, and concerned about, the state of accountability in the UK.”

A final report will be published later this year outlining recommendations for change.


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