18 November 2010

Nick Clegg describes responsibility without power as "the curse of the decentralising Minister". Ministers will have to think hard about their own accountability to Parliament and how to respond to failure if they are not to fall foul of the curse.

There is no shortage of straight talking about the ambition to turn government on its head and the need for a radical shift in accountability.

Launching the government’s business plans, the Prime Minister repeated his determination to "be the first government in a generation to leave office with much less power in Whitehall than we started with."

But can ministers withstand the pressure to respond that comes from standing at the despatch box, sitting in front of a select committee, or being stopped in the corridors of power? And, even if Ministers want to let go, will Parliament let them?

As part of a project looking into ministerial accountability, the Institute will be addressing these issues and exploring how the curse of responsibility without power can best be managed.

An end to the state driving outcomes from the top down

The accountability of ministers to parliament for the actions (or inaction) of the department they head remains a hinge of the unwritten constitution.

As the scale of change in Whitehall emerges, traditional avenues of accountability will need to be squared with ministers' determination that the proverbial bedpan rattling on a distant hospital floor should no longer be heard in Whitehall.

Instead of pressure being felt at the top and instruction echoing down from private office to service provider, public services will be transformed through:

  • giving service-users choice
  • competition between providers
  • commissioning for results
  • greater transparency
  • direct election.

A different concept of accountability?

The government does not intend to allow the delivery of public services or the expenditure of taxpayers' money to escape some form of accountability. Nor should they.

But they do have a different conception of what constitutes accountability – one in which a patient choosing a hospital, or a parent a school, is holding services directly to account in ways that civil servants in Whitehall cannot.

As Peter Riddell has explained, ministers are being held to account for their handling of reform, not for the results of those reforms. This implies a shift towards ending ministerial accountability for the operational delivery of services.

The need for clarity

But if ministers declaim responsibility for performance dips or major service failures, there will need to be sufficient clarity about who is responsible for what. Otherwise it will be difficult to pinpoint where remedy is needed and answers should be sought.

There is currently little clarity about what ministers are, and are not, accountable for. Parliament therefore tends to assume that ministers are accountable for everything, and behave accordingly.

But that assumption is already not valid for every department and public service, and will become less valid as current policy takes hold. Big changes are needed, not just in Whitehall, but in Westminster too.

Nothing to do with me, guv

MPs have a democratic legitimacy which armchair auditors and arm’s length regulators and inspectors do not. And parliament continues to provide over 90 per cent of the funding for public services.

But the right limits to and avenues for parliamentary oversight for decentralised services are not yet clear. It remains to be seen how parliament will respond to the Minister who tries valiantly to respond "nothing to do with me, guv".

The sharpest tests are likely to come when tragedy, insolvency or impropriety strike. A combination of service-user, public, media and political pressure can create a demand for action from the centre which can be hard to resist.

It is at these times that the resilience of decentralised systems will be tested, and the need for clear lines of accountability will most strongly be felt. Otherwise, ministers may face an unwelcome choice between undermining their own political capital and undermining their policy intent.

The Institute has published an issues paper (PDF, 215KB) and welcome your comments about these issues below, or by email.


Interesting analysis, and I agree this approach to reform raises a few questions.

<a href="http://www.edemocracyblog.com/political-blog/is-the-coalition-reducing-p... rel="nofollow">As I wrote about on my blog</a>, it seems to me that there is also another dimension to the accountability issue.

Ministers want to be held to account for their systemic reforms, not for individual outcomes.

But in tandem with that they also want a system which is more innovative and which is 'tolerant' of a higher failure rate in order to deliver that innovation.

So they can actually argue that some poor outcomes are a sign of success as they prove the system is more 'innovative'.

Which raises the question of how does anyone tell if any failure is just an isolated problem for which ministers are not accountable, or a result of a malfunctioning system for which they are? Does there need to be a certain number of failures before the minister becomes accountable for a lousy system? Etc, etc.

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