Summary – Accountability in modern government: recommendations for change

Accountability lies at the heart of democratic government. The current system displays critical weaknesses, but these can be addressed. This report is a follow-up to our April 2018 discussion paper, which outlined the weaknesses that affect accountability in the UK. Here we present recommendations which aim to improve accountability: clarifying the relationship between ministers and civil servants, meeting the challenges of complex modern government, and shifting the culture of accountability from blame to learning and improvement.

Strong accountability matters – and when it works, it benefits everyone. It enables people to know how the Government is doing, and how to gain redress when things go wrong. It ensures that ministers and civil servants are acting in the interests of the people that they serve. Accountability is a part of good governance, and can increase the trustworthiness and legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the public.

The benefits of strong accountability

At its heart, accountability is about a relationship between those responsible for something, and those who have a role in passing judgement on how well that responsibility has been discharged. When accountability works well, it enables a degree of feedback between the Government and the public that it serves.

While strong accountability is not a panacea for solving the numerous challenges that government faces in a complex environment, it can improve government. It generates incentives for responsible individuals to act in the interests of the public. Sometimes this means that ‘heads must roll’ following a major failure; but a healthy system of accountability also promotes improvements in how government works.

This should include:

  • proportionate rewards for good performance
  • proportionate sanctions for failure
  • a greater degree of learning than the current system contains
  • support for responsible individuals to develop, so that they are able to innovate and take appropriate risks.

The scale and scope of government activities has grown increasingly complex in recent decades, and this trend looks set to continue. However, complexity is not an excuse for negligence, neither should it serve as a cover; rather, it is a challenge that government must face. Strong accountability helps responsible individuals to manage complexity better.

Addressing weaknesses in the system

More than 21,000 people, including MPs and councillors, are democratically accountable to UK citizens and scrutinise the public services that 5.3 million public sector workers deliver daily. In recent years, accountability and transparency have improved around the Government’s major projects and around government departments’ arrangements for managing public money.

In spite of this, our discussion paper, Accountability in Modern Government: What are the issues?, highlighted examples of failures related to accountability weaknesses, including financial mismanagement, chronic underperformance and service collapse. There are three main weaknesses in the current system of accountability which increase the risk that such failures might occur:

  1. Fundamental gaps in accountability at the heart of Whitehall. The conventions that shape the relationship between officials and ministers have evolved in a way that undermines accountability. They promote a tradition of secrecy, which results in a lack of clarity about the responsibilities of senior officials and ministers. These conventions also confine responsibilities to departmental silos, which denies reality.
  2. Successive administrations have failed to ensure that accountability has kept pace with the increasing complexity of modern government at all levels, including local and devolved government. Modern government achieves its aims by delivering services through complex networks of departments and public bodies, private and voluntary sector providers, with inconsistent arrangements for oversight, inspection, regulation and scrutiny.
  3. Accountability is too focused on blame, when it needs to focus on improvement. Too often, judgements regarding accountability rely on the informal and subjective nature of politics, which have a tendency to overemphasise blame. The political element of accountability interacts poorly with a high-stakes environment which places almost all responsibility on those at the top. This promotes defensiveness and a focus on compliance, and precludes learning from mistakes.

Seven recommendations for stronger accountability

Strengthening accountability across the breadth of government requires a range of reforms. This report outlines seven proposals to address issues arising from the weaknesses that we have identified. Together these changes would:

  • improve transparency around the feasibility of major projects
  • provide stronger oversight of the civil service
  • clarify what public services citizens get for their money
  • ensure that government policies have strong accountability arrangements built in
  • strengthen scrutiny of the links between local public services
  • support earlier investigations of possible failures
  • improve the scrutiny that Parliament provides.

1. Holding ministers to account for the feasibility of their projects

A pervasive culture of secrecy shields both ministers and senior civil servants from meaningful scrutiny when major projects underperform or fail. Stronger accountability is needed to counterbalance the ambiguity and unavoidable uncertainty of decision making. It is not enough to identify who is responsible for the decision once failure becomes apparent: we need proactive methods which offer assurance that the responsible individuals have properly considered the risks associated with major projects before they begin

To achieve this we propose that permanent secretaries, in their role as departmental accounting officers, should publish more details on the feasibility, potential risks and mitigation strategies in place for their department’s major projects after they have been agreed. This should be subject to external validation and provide the basis for future scrutiny of the project. Parliamentary select committees should recall ministers who have subsequently left post to answer questions about the decisions made during the inception of a project, especially where subsequent underperformance or failures have resulted in harm to the public.

These proposals would provide more clarity about the basis on which decisions were made. This would help to ensure that relevant issues are raised with ministers before a project starts. Moreover, it would provide Parliament with material to scrutinise these projects as they are implemented.

2. Preventing repeated failures in the civil service

The civil service has displayed long-standing weaknesses in how it uses specialist skills, and in challenging policies that fall short of standards for spending public money. Civil service leaders have a collective responsibility to ensure that the civil service has the right capability in place to deliver the Government’s priorities, that this capability is being developed appropriately, and that specific aspects of the accountability system (such as the accounting officer role) operate effectively to safeguard value for money for taxpayers. There is a lack of accountability for these collective responsibilities, and the structure and conventions of Whitehall make it difficult to tackle any resulting issues. This has enabled repeated failures caused by the same underlying problems to occur, wasting public money and even directly harming individuals.

In order to ensure that these collective responsibilities are fulfilled, the Prime Minister should appoint a dedicated minister committed to overseeing reform of the civil service, to help deal with these cross-cutting weaknesses. This is formally the most effective structure for ensuring that the civil service faces up to the challenges highlighted above, as it would provide clear leadership and help sponsor senior civil servants’ efforts at ministerial level. However, ministerial interest in civil service reform is variable, and there have been high levels of churn in the post of Minister for the Civil Service in recent years. In light of this, we recommend that the Government establishes an oversight board, which would incorporate experienced non-executives from across the public and private sectors to provide independent support and challenge to civil service leaders.

In particular, a board would provide a forum for strategic discussions on civil service capability and how it is being developed; and whether existing accountability mechanisms or strategies to help civil servants to raise difficult issues with ministers are being implemented successfully.

3. Clarifying what public services citizens get for their money

Currently, there is too little independent challenge and scrutiny of the link between the funding allocated to public services, how well they perform, and how sustainably they can run. Responsibilities for most policy areas are overlapping, with ministers and other political leaders deciding what services should be provided. Meanwhile, the Treasury decides how much money to allocate, and local leaders such as police chiefs and hospital executives determine how a service is run. This arrangement commonly results in failure to consider how spending affects performance.

To address this, we propose that government and Parliament should ensure that transparent, authoritative information and data underpins the spending review process, which sets departments’ budgets for the next three to five years.

Departments should publish statements at the end of each spending review that set out any changes to planned spending, and how these will be delivered in practice. These should be independently scrutinised to check the quality of financial and performance models used by departments to underpin the proposed statements.

This proposal would ensure that decisions are based more clearly on evidence. It would increase understanding of spending decisions which otherwise may seem arbitrary, and encourage continuous improvement in the data that underpins decision making.

4. Ensuring that accountability across public services works in practice

There are many examples of instances when accountability arrangements have failed to protect the public. Specific accountability arrangements vary between policy areas, but sometimes accountability is not built in from the start or is dismantled over time – in either circumstance, this can cause harm to specific groups or individuals. However, ministers do not always take responsibility for ensuring that policies have effective accountability arrangements built into them: this should change.

We propose that there should be a systematic way to assess the effectiveness of accountability arrangements. To do this in the area of financial management, the Treasury should further develop its guidance to assess the quality of accounting officer system statements (the documents prepared by each accounting officer which outline all the accountability arrangements within the department and its agencies).

To do this more widely, especially in relation to policy, departments should review other accountabilities on an ongoing basis. The findings from these reviews should be published and signed off by the minister responsible.

These changes would encourage government departments and agencies to ensure that effective accountability arrangements are put in place and maintained. This would help to ensure that policies work as intended.

5. Strengthening scrutiny of the links between local public services

Government provides a wide range of services on which the public rely. Many of these services have to be delivered in a joined-up way, on a routine basis, to benefit the public. This is challenging, because decisions made in some areas have an impact on others in ways that are not always well understood. While responsibility for each service is vested in a particular individual, there is no overall responsibility for examining the links between services. This creates accountability gaps, which can be detrimental to performance.

Our recommendation is that the Government should build up local capacity to track the links between different local public services, and to examine how these relationships influence the respective performance of services. To do so, it should review the case for setting up local Public Accounts Committees (PACs) – initially in combined mayoral authorities – to serve as a forum to convene the local leaders responsible for different services to discuss service performance and the links between services.

We also need capacity to track the links between different local public services, and to examine how these influence service performance. This could take the form of new performance assessment units, which could aggregate data independently and share this information as part of a network.

These changes would not absolve local public service leaders of their responsibilities, especially where services fail. However, they would improve local leaders’ ability to pre-empt failure by enabling earlier discussions about how services place pressure on each other. It also would promote learning about how service leaders can work together better to mitigate these challenges, and deliver better services to the public.

6. Getting better information earlier, to prevent the blame game

The current system of accountability often holds off on meaningful scrutiny of issues or failure until the point when they become full-blown crises. While some public services have well-established, top-down systems to routinely track performance, we need a stronger, bottom-up system which can investigate failings earlier. The various ombudsman services serve as a backstop for individual members of the public who have been harmed by the Government in some way, where they have not been able to resolve the complaint directly with the service provider. Yet there are limits to the effectiveness of ombudsman services: in particular they lack the ability to initiate investigations on the basis of their own concerns, in the absence of a specific referral. This means that where early warnings are raised, they are not escalated early enough to those who could make meaningful changes – specifically within Parliament and the Government.

To address this, we propose that the Government should bring forward the Draft Public Services Ombudsman Bill, which would help to consolidate several of the existing ombudsman services into a single, more effective unit. In addition, the Government should grant ‘own motion’ powers to ombudsman services, so that they can initiate investigations sooner.

These proposals would help to integrate the main early-warning system for government failure into central mechanisms of accountability, in particular scrutiny by parliamentary select committees. Earlier investigation would increase the likelihood of solving issues before they become crises. This would make it possible for those responsible to be scrutinised in a way that is not solely focused on blame and sanctions, but on learning from what happened, so that they can improve.

7. Parliamentary scrutiny that promotes learning and improvement 

Parliamentary select committees are the ultimate form of scrutiny, checking the work of government. Yet scrutiny typically comes late and, too frequently, at the point of political crisis. In doing so, it can miss opportunities to drive improvement. This is partly due to lack of resources, and the limited time that MPs have available. It also results in few issues being followed up over the medium and long term. These inherent weaknesses are compounded by the temptation for MPs to engage in political theatre, rather than in-depth scrutiny.

There are two ways to promote improvements in scrutiny. Select committees should apply scrutiny earlier – using the new information generated by our proposed feasibility assessments, system statements and strengthened ombudsman services, detailed elsewhere in this report – to get issues onto their agendas before they escalate. Also, when failure happens despite early intervention, committees should be able to follow up issues over the long term, to minimise the risk that similar failure might reoccur. This would involve scrutinising the Government’s efforts to implement the recommendations made by public inquiries. To support these efforts, we also recommend that the committees are given more staff resources.

These improvements would have several benefits. Earlier scrutiny would prevent issues from developing into crises that are solved by punishing those perceived to be responsible. This also would enable committees to act as a forum where those responsible can learn from their mistakes, and correct their course of action.