Accountability in modern government: what are the issues?

Discussion Paper by Benoit Guerin, Julian McCrae and Marcus Shepheard: “…Accountability lies at the heart of democratic government. It enables people to know how the Government is doing and how to gain redress when things go wrong. It ensures ministers and civil servants are acting in the interests of the people they serve.

Accountability is a part of good governance and it can increase the trustworthiness and legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the public. Every day, 5.4 million public sector workers deliver services ranging from health care to schools to national defence.1 A host of bodies hold them to account – whether the National Audit Office undertaking around 60 value for money inquiries a year,2 Ofsted inspecting more than 5,000 schools per year, or the main Government ombudsman services dealing with nearly 80,000 complaints from the public in 2016/17 alone. More than 21,000 elected officials, ranging from MPs to local councillors, scrutinise these services on behalf of citizens.

When that accountability works properly, it helps the UK’s government to be among the best in the world. For example, public spending is authorised by Parliament and routinely stays within the limits set. The accountability that surrounds this – provided through oversight by the Treasury, audit by the National Audit Office and scrutiny by the Public Accounts Committee – is strong and dates back to the 19th century. However, in areas where that accountability is weak, the risk of failure – whether financial mismanagement, the collapse of services or chronic underperformance – increases. …

There are three factors underpinning the weak accountability that is perpetuating failure. They are: fundamental gaps in accountability in Whitehall; a failure of accountability beyond Whitehall to keep pace with an increasingly complex public sector landscape; and a pervading culture of blame….

This paper suggests potential options for strengthening accountability, based on our analysis. These involve changes to structures, increased transparency and moves to improve the culture. These options are meant to elicit discussion rather than to set the Institute for Government’s position at this stage….(More)”