Accountability in Modern Government: What are the Issues? shows how weak accountability increases the risk of failure of public services – whether through financial mismanagement, chronic underperformance or the collapse of services. 

The report finds the same patterns of failure repeatedly occurring: 

  • Ministers and civil servants blame each other with things go wrong, which limits the chances of lessons being learned and mistakes avoided in future. This has affected flagship projects such as the roll-out of Universal Credit and, more recently, the Windrush immigration cases.
  • Even when failures are clearly attributable to ministers, many are not held to account for their decisions. Ministers responsible for the Metronet contracts or the outsourcing of probation services were never called to explain why they opted for risky, and ultimately wasteful approaches. 
  • Poor contract management can often result in wider public services failures, from the millions of pounds lost in the overbilling for prisoner electronic tagging to the problems with benefit assessments. The recent collapse of Carillion highlights the importance of tackling these issues systematically.

The report argues that the UK’s system of accountability isn’t keeping up with the realities of modern government. This leads to repeated failures, which harm the public and undermine trust in institutions. Tragedies like the Grenfell Tower fire provoke questions about who should be held to account.

At the same time, the report says there is a tendency to overemphasise blame when something goes wrong. This creates a high-stakes environment, where a perceived slip-up can end a career. Instead of frank conversations about what would be needed to improve the situation, the tendency is to obscure the facts.

The discussion paper is part of a project that aims to strengthen the lines of accountability between public sector workers, elected officials and the public they serve. A further report is planned for later in 2018.

Download a summary of our proposals for change: Accountability in Modern Government – directions for change