27 March 2013

Is the Accounting Officer system broken? Accountability is under the spotlight as rarely before, while the Public Accounts Committee is more visible and assertive than for years. But how much actually changes?

One permanent secretary said “appearing before the PAC doesn’t change the price of fish”. Officials at HMRC and the Care Quality Commission may take a different view but it remains a fair question. Would defining better the respective roles of ministers and civil servants transform things? Will the latest civil service reforms make all the difference?

Why should they? Did Continuity and Change make all the difference? Or Taking Forward Continuity and Change? How about Modernising Government? Or Civil Service Reforms: Delivery and Values, which was soon followed by Civil Service Reforms: Delivery and Values: One Year On. Then we had Capability Reviews, which was followed by Putting the Frontline First. Now we have The Civil Service Reform Plan. Will we have arrived when someone publishes The Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On?

The key skill needed within Government to get better outcomes is the ability to marshal a variety of resources – money, people, technology and time – and handle them very tightly to deliver specific objectives. This is called management. But the idea that writing down the entire distribution of responsibilities between ministers on the one hand, and civil servants on the other – as if the chief problems could all be solved if only the memo were long enough – misses what is most important. Politics is complex, subtle, messy and ambiguous.

Greater clarity will only work if ministers are prepared to face up to the consequences of greater clarity. And it is revealing that those who are most insistent in calling for greater clarity are not ministers who have to get re-elected, but former advisers and academics who don’t. It is one thing to point out that the current system involves supervising a deeply ambiguous set of relationships, but it is another not to acknowledge that they are bound to be deeply ambiguous. This is called politics.

It is true that with more clarity there would be less politics - and sometimes that might be a good thing - but there would also be less democracy, leaving ministers even more circumscribed than they are now, facing civil servants who refused to do as they were asked because it was ‘not in the contract’.

David Birch, a senior Olympics manager, described the outstanding feature of London 2012: “We worked hard to generate and recognise one source of truth”. Yes, we should learn from this. But politics is not the Olympic Games. As Michael Howard has put it: “It is a delusion to suppose that there is some different kind of structure which will make everything easy and solve the problems”.

Economics has seen a big shift towards studying how people actually behave, rather than how they are supposed to behave. We need a similar shift in government and politics. In the British civil service we have one of the world’s best talent pools but we don’t get the best out of them. Instead of incessant exhortation, we need to think harder about what makes people tick. We should spend less time worrying about the nth civil service reform plan and rather more time answering Frans de Waal’s question: How do people actually behave? We are already doing this for government’s paymasters, known as the British public - the Behavioural Insights Unit is developing new lore by the day. But what would this powerful searchlight reveal if it were turned inwards, on to the behaviour of civil servants, ministers and MPs?


An excellent subject to touch upon. I dont think we can confuse the specific duties of the Accounting Officer - as outlined by HMT guidance - and that of the issues of accountability - that needs to also include trust. Its not surprising the perception is that PAC are the only ones scrutinising what is going on, but they seem to be the only ones able to get real publicity when they say it. The work IfG is doing can galvanise the debate into wider circles, as the more these issues are debated, the more we can move public perception, even if the progress is taken in small steps.

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