The Institute for Government is launching a new strand of work on accountability in central government. The objectives of this project will be to facilitate debate about the effectiveness of current accountability arrangements, to explore possible alternative models, and to help to build consensus about specific reforms that could be made.
Good government requires that those responsible for policy-making, implementation and public expenditure can be held to account for their actions. This is uncontested. Yet how to design accountability structures in Whitehall remains a matter of controversy.
One central question is how to draw the line between the responsibilities of ministers and those of senior civil servants. Incidents such as perceived failings of the UK Borders Agency and the Care Quality Commission raise questions about whether ministers, their officials or the arm’s length body in question are to blame and how to hold these different actors to account.
Parliament, particularly through the Public Accounts Committee, often expresses frustration at the difficulty of calling to account those responsible for mistakes in government. From the perspective of ministers, meanwhile, the central problem often appears to be their lack of ability to exercise sufficient control over the civil service machine.
In June 2012, the government’s Civil Service Reform Plan set out some proposals for how the personal accountability of Whitehall officials might be extended beyond the traditional ‘accounting officer’ role, to cover policy advice and the success of policy implementation. The government also signalled a willingness to allow officials to give evidence relating to their previous posts, representing a move away from the convention that the current postholder speaks for his or her predecessors.
There is also interest in learning from international examples, such as via more direct political input into civil service appointments (as in the US), an expansion of politically appointed advisers (as in Australia), or a contractual division of responsibility between ministers and civil service departmental heads (as in New Zealand).
Starting in October 2012, we will hold a series of seminars and private workshops, bringing together key Whitehall figures and external experts to explore specific aspects of the accountability question.
The first in this series will explore the New Zealand model of accountability, in which the UK government has expressed strong interest. Further seminars will seek to learn lessons from countries such as Canada, the USA, Sweden and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales.
There will also be a series of roundtable discussions focusing on specific aspects of accountability arrangements that are the subject of debate, such as:
- The appointments process for senior civil servants, and what role in this process ministers should play,
- The role of the accounting officer (AO), and how the government’s proposed expansion of this role could work,
- Performance management arrangements for permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants, and how these could be reformed to sharpen the accountability of individual officials,
- The accountability of the civil service to Parliament, and whether current constitutional conventions such as the Osmotherly Rules need to be updated,
We also hope to host sessions exploring lessons from particular policy case studies.
We will prepare discussion papers to stimulate debate, and use insights from these events to develop practical ways forward.
We expect to publish a final report on this issue in summer 2013.
This research builds upon a number of previous and current Institute for Government projects and publications, including:
- The Transforming the Civil Service programme, which is currently being led by Programme Director Peter Thomas.
- The Accountability for Public Services work, which is exploring different means by which citizens can hold public services to account.
- The previous project leading to the report Nothing to do with me?, which discussed how ministerial accountability affected government plans to decentralise public services.
- The Institute’s work on arm’s length bodies, especially our 2010 report Read Before Burning.
- Northern Exposure, a report by Sir John Elvidge that discussed the implications of reforms made to the Scottish civil service since 2007.
This project is being overseen by Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government. The research team consists of Akash Paun and Joshua Harris, and various other Institute staff will be involved in some way in this work.
For further information about our plans in this area, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org