Universal Credit - classic example of 'muddled' accountability

Today (9 December, 2013) the Work and Pensions Secretary faces more questions about Universal Credit by a committee of MPs. But under the current system of accountability we could be none the wiser as to who is really responsible.

A new IfG report ‘Accountability at the Top’ says the current system of accountability in Whitehall is opaque, out of date and creaking under the pressures of today’s demands.

The report makes 12 proposals (report, pgs 42-46) to strengthen accountability, including:

  • Naming those top 25% permanent secretaries receiving a top appraisal marking.
  • Since 2010, no permanent secretary has issued a direction to challenge a policy idea or register a concern, for fear of the repercussions.  We propose more powers for the permanent secretary to seek a direction at crucial stages of the policy process.
  • The Major Projects Authority, National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee should support the permanent secretary to seek directions.
  • Joint questioning of ministers and permanent secretaries at Public Accounts Committee.
  • Ministers should formally recognise the permanent secretary’s independent role in safeguarding the long-term health of the department.
  • Ministers should be able to call upon expert advisers to help them with their short term priorities.
  • A more credible appraisal system (consulting with secretaries of state and the Prime Minister) should be in place for permanent secretaries – the current system of publishing objectives 8 months late is ‘laughable’.

The UK is unusual for having no identifiable framework that allows public and parliament to understand who is responsible for success and failure in government. Accountability arrangements for policy ideas and implementation are muddled. Some view this as a cosy conspiracy that allows ministers and official to hide behind each other when things go wrong. But the report says in reality, ‘present arrangements operate in a messy, unpredictable and opaque fashion that serves nobody’s interests.’

The report adds that Permanent Secretaries lack the support to act in the long term interests of their department, independently of ministers - an important stewardship role often downplayed or ignored. It says, ‘the complete absence of directions since 2010 also raises the question of whether permanent secretaries feel sufficiently emboldened to question ministerial judgements where appropriate.’

Furthermore, we found no job description for the role of permanent secretary; no clarity about how good and poor performance is measured or what the consequences are for either. Today the objectives for 2013-2014 remain unpublished.  

Ambiguity about why permanent secretaries are ‘moved on’ is a situation no other sector would find acceptable and gives the impression that poor performance is being rewarded or that good performance is being overlooked.

 However, rather than importing a contractualised New Zealand approach or a politicised US system into Whitehall, the Institute proposes definable ways to improve accountability at the top of Whitehall. We provide a strong framework to help ministers and senior civil servants work more effectively together in future.

IfG Fellow and lead author of the report, Akash Paun, said:

“Time and again the question of who is responsible for what in government is fudged and as a result trust in the system has all but broken down. Even today as the Work and Pensions Secretary goes before a committee of MPs on the creaking Universal Credit programme, it is impossible to tell who is responsible for what.

“When things go wrong, it must be made clearer who is responsible and what are the consequences for that failure. But permanent secretaries and ministers are working with an appraisal system that blames and credits no one. Unsurprisingly permanent secretaries see their objectives as a joke. This year’s objectives, when they are finally published, must link performance to results and have clear consequences for success and failure.”

“We propose some specific reforms that would help ministers and permanent secretaries to understand each other’s roles and responsibilities, and to work together more effectively.”



Associated documents: