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Government accountability: A year in crises

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 2019

From Windrush to Univerisal Credit: the Institute for Government’s (IfG’s) accountability lead Benoit Guerin discusses how we can avert future government blunders and improve public accountability.

This past year was marked by several high-profile government crises. Thousands of UK citizens from the ‘Windrush generation’ became at risk of being deported because of the government’s immigration policy. A report into Gosport War Memorial Hospital shed light on a string of failures which resulted in hundreds of preventable deaths decades ago, not to mention the shadow of the Grenfell fire, which is the subject of an ongoing inquiry.

Accountability is frequently invoked as a means of righting wrongs in the face of such crises. At Glastonbury 2017, Stormzy famously demanded that government be “held accountable” for the Grenfell disaster, a call echoed by Danny Dyer over David Cameron’s role in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. The public, understandably, wants someone to take responsibility.

These demands are legitimate, yet the IfG found that the UK’s system of accountability features three weaknesses which end up increasing the risk failures, including financial mismanagement, and the chronic underperformance, or collapse, of public services.

First, there is a lack of clarity about who is responsible for major decisions in Whitehall, and both officials and ministers have overseen costly failures ranging from probation reform to Metronet – yet have not been formally held to account for them.

Second, the UK’s system of accountability struggles to keep pace with the complexity and size of government and the public sector, with public services being delivered daily to the public by 5.3 million public-sector workers through a myriad of public-, private- and third-sector organisations.

Finally, the nature of the opposition and the media can lead to an emphasis on blame as opposed to improvement when things go wrong.

These weaknesses are not beyond remedy. The IfG’s latest paper on accountability proposed a range of solutions to tackle them, ranging from changes to parliamentary scrutiny and stronger governance for the Civil Service, among others. Here, we focus on two: decision-making in Whitehall and dealing with early warnings.

Holding ministers to account for the projects they oversee

Too often, Whitehall’s secretive environment can shield ministers who make bad decisions on major projects, and civil servants who deliver poor advice. The public and Parliament need to be clear that there has been proper consideration of the risks associated to major projects (such as Universal Credit) before decisions are taken, rather than after the fact.

To achieve this, we suggest that permanent secretaries build on existing mechanisms to publish more details on the feasibility, potential risks, and mitigation strategies in place for their department’s major projects once they have been agreed.

Parliamentary select committees should also recall ministers – even after they have left post – when they launched projects which later underperformed or failed in the face of significant known risks. This would provide greater clarity about the rationale for going ahead with large projects while maintaining the privacy of decision-making.

Better information on public services to tackle issues earlier

Scrutiny of failures tends to happen after issues have developed into full-blown crises, at which point the stakes are high, which encourages a culture of blame. In the case of Windrush, both caseworkers and community groups had noticed that individuals were victims of the ‘hostile environment’ policy long before the media and Parliament stepped in. This highlights the need for stronger, bottom-up ways of tracking public service performance to investigate emerging failures earlier.

We recommend that the government boosts the powers of ombudsmen by consolidating some of them into a single, more effective unit with ‘own motion’ powers to initiate investigations. This would integrate the main early-warning system for government failures and remedy one of the weaknesses associated with ombudsmen, which are currently unable to initiate investigations on the basis of their own concerns in the absence of a specific referral. Ultimately, it would mean that issues are escalated more quickly to those who effect meaningful changes within Parliament – particularly select committees – and the government.

These options, and others we have previously suggested, should be given due consideration, especially from government, to prevent future crises which could damage the public’s trust in the institutions.

Top image: Robert Ingelhart


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