From September 2012 to December 2013 the Institute for Government ran a programme of work on the issue of accountability in central government – a major theme of the government’s civil service reform agenda. We engaged directly in the reform debate through a series of reports, blogs, events and media interventions. Our final report was published in December 2013, and we are following up on its publication with further events and engagement activities.

Background

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.
Through its Civil Service Reform Plan published in June 2012 the government has sought to increase the accountability of officials. Our work has looked at some of the ideas set out in the Plan - such as strengthening the accountability of permanent secretaries to parliament in their role as accounting officers - as well as learning from other countries.

New Zealand and Australia

This report considered how the New Zealand and Australian governments have approached accountability and public service reform. In New Zealand, the approach has been to more clearly differentiate the roles and responsibilities of ministers from departmental chief executives (permanent secretary equivalents). Fixed term contracts and clear performance objectives were also introduced. In Australia, by contrast, reforms in the 1980s strengthened the control of ministers (and the Prime Minister in particular) over officials in response to concerns about an unresponsive bureaucracy.

These two countries provide a rich seam of evidence about the advantages and drawbacks about such reforms. Considering how effective these changes have been in Australia and New Zealand therefore offers a useful starting point for thinking about whether similar moves would be appropriate here.

We held a public event with the New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Bill English MP alongside the UK's Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude which discussed the different experiences of reform.

Ministerial private offices

The next report - Supporting Ministers to Lead - looked at the question of whether ministerial private offices provide the right kind of support to enable departmental secretaries of state to carry out their roles effectively. Extending our use of international comparisons, this report considered arrangements in the UK alongside those in the European Commission, Australia and France.

Our research found that traditional private officers are constrained in how they can support ministers to ensure the delivery of their objectives, and lack staff with serious experience in the policy area in question. We therefore recommend that each Secretary of State should have the clear right to request the appointment of a small number of expert advisers, as well as a chief of staff to lead the expanded office. Although not political appointees, ministers should have a significant role in choosing who fills these roles.

Permanent secretary appointments

In June 2013 we published our report on Permanent Secretary Appointments and the Role of Ministers. We argue that secretaries of state should be able to select their permanent secretary from a merit-based shortlist. We also call for more transparency around the use of managed moves, by which appointments are made in Whitehall without any formal process, and for a stronger performance management system for permanent secretaries.

This research was informed by a public seminar in January 2013 on how permanent secretaries should be appointed.

Accounting officers in central government

Accounting officers are always the permanent secretary of a department and are responsible for how public money is spent. They are directly accountable to the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament – and so this is a significant exception to the traditional doctrine of ministerial accountability in which civil servants are accountable to ministers, and ministers then to Parliament.
This briefing paper sheds light on how the accountability structures in Whitehall have developed, and the implications of government plans to make accounting officers even more accountable.

Civil service accountability to Parliament

As part of its civil service reform agenda, the government is seeking to strengthen civil service accountability to Parliament. Meanwhile, in Westminster, MPs question whether the traditional conventions for this process are effective. Based on interviews with MPs and officials in both Westminster and Whitehall, our report on Civil Service Accountability to Parliament examines the state of the relationship between select committees and the government departments they scrutinise.

We argue that, ultimately, the effectiveness of the accountability relationship between committees and departments depends less on formal powers and the processes set out in the Osmotherly Rules than on the attitudes and behaviours which Parliament and government adopt.

Civil service legislation

In the final briefing paper of this project, Legislating for a Civil Service, we compare the use of legislation to entrench the civil service in the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Final report

Our study of accountabiity arrangements in Whitehall came to a close in December 2013, with the publication of our final report - Accountability at the Top: Supporting Effective Leadership in Whitehall
The focus of this report is the question of how and how effectively permanent secretaries are held to account. Drawing on all the prior publicaitons and events, the report assesses current arrangements against four criteria of effective accountability, and argue that there are significant weaknesses at present. There is a lack of clarity around what permanent secretaries are personally responsible for – with no job description and a flawed performance objective system. There is also a lack of clear consequences for both good and bad performance. We set out 12 recommendations for reform.

Research team

This project was led by Akash Paun, supported by Josh Harris and working under the oversight of Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government. Others who contributed to the research included Sir Ian Magee and Pepita Barlow. Various other Institute staff - including Julian McCrae, Jill Rutter and Nadine Smith contributed to our analysis and conclusions.

For further information about our work in this area, please contact akash.paun@instituteforgovernment.org.uk

Project contacts

Senior Fellow
Josh Harris
Senior Researcher