News 29th October 2018

Accountability in Modern Government: From recommendation to commitment?

by Andreas Pavlou

 

Accountability is an essential pillar of open and democratic government. At its core, it enables the public to hold the government to account for policy and for the delivery of public services.

The Open Government Partnership highlights that this should involve incorporating high ethical standards and codes of conduct for public officials along with anti-corruption policies and mechanisms that help to strengthen the rule of law.

In the UK, open government action plans have included accountability measures such as a cross-departmental anti-corruption strategy, implementing Open Contracting Data Standards, and requiring transparency of key information and data by local authorities.

However, in April 2018, the Institute for Government (IfG) identified serious weaknesses in accountability in Whitehall and across all levels of government in the UK.[1]

Firstly, the conventions that shape the relationship between officials and ministers have evolved in a way that promotes secrecy. This blurs the responsibilities of senior officials and ministers and ultimately undermines accountability.

Secondly, mechanisms for accountability have failed to keep pace with the complexities of modern government, meaning that there are significant inconsistencies in the arrangements for oversight, inspection, regulation and scrutiny of public service delivery at national, devolved and local level. This makes it difficult to hold people and institutions to account.

Finally, the culture in government promotes defensiveness and overemphasises blame in a way that impedes the possibility of learning from mistakes and improving practices and processes. This means that holding institutions and individuals to account does not always lead to improved practice.

As such, strengthening accountability across the breadth of government requires a range of reforms. The Institute for Government’s latest report on the topic, ‘Accountability in Modern Government: Recommendations for Change‘ outlines seven proposals which together 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.

Despite the fourth UK Action Plan being almost ready for publishing, it is still possible for the Government to consider incorporating commitments to improve Government accountability in this action plan. We encourage government to consider incorporating commitments to improve accountability to tackle some of these issues.

You can read the executive summary of the report, and a version in full, following this link:
https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/accountability-modern-government-recommendations

Footnote

[1] The report which unpacked the issues was IfG’s April 2018 discussion paper Accountability in modern government: what are the issues? (https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/accountability-modern-government-issues)

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