Power, Accountability, Localism
The CfPS 9th Annual Debate took place in Westminster on 29th March. An invited audience joined Rt Hon Nick Raynsford MP (Chair of CfPS) and speakers from local government, Parliament and the media to discuss the balance of power, accountability and localism in public services in an era of less central regulation and more diverse arrangements for planning and delivering services.
Councillor Richard Stay (Lead Member for Improvement) got things going by suggesting that there have been enough government commitments, enough academic analysis and enough media comment about these issues. Local councils want to make things happen, they welcome government commitments to make it easier for them to respond better to their residents but he identified a contrast between the rhetoric of ‘devolution and localism’ and the reality of Ministers and civil servants ‘letting go’. He contended that an imbalance in the relationship between central and local government in the UK was at the heart of this contrast. It was different in the USA he argued, where central government exists through the collective will of the States – in the UK, local councils exist at the will of central government. Local communities want ‘additionality’, the capacity to respond quickly to local issues and add value. He concluded by asking whether Parliamentary processes, for example the Public Accounts Committee, could help establish a new approach?
Richard Bacon MP (Member of the Public Accounts Committee) spoke about the centrality of accountability to the relationship between Parliament and government. With the majority of spending on public services generated through national taxation, Parliament would always want to hold Ministers and accountable officers in Departments of State accountable for policy priorities and value for money. The challenge of localism is that diversity in commissioning services (for example through GP commissioning) and delivering services (for example through Foundation Trusts or Academies) makes accountability less clear – Parliament needs to be satisfied that mechanisms exist across government to identify and mitigate risks and that there is evidence of the benefits of localism (for example in terms of outcomes, information on performance, handling governance and failure and evaluation). He concluded that in the new public services landscape, where information would become a vital but perhaps scarce resource, central oversight remained essential to secure value for taxpayers and citizens.
David Walker (Contributing Editor, Guardian Public Leaders Network) set accountability in the context of challenging economic circumstances. With little trust in politicians or privacy for them to debate policy options, he asked whether accountability has become about ‘blame’ and whether structures for accountability have become more important than principles? He questioned the evidence for different forms of accountability (for example through elected mayors) and what he called the ‘heroic assumption’ that accountability can bring about change.
Do 21st century economics dictate a trade off in accountability to avoid profitability, quality and value being compromised? Is the imperative for infrastructure investment likely to weaken accountability? He concluded by suggesting that, in fact, investment was needed in the capacity for accountability – the extent to which people understand information and data and can analyse it and use it in effective ways.
Tim Gilling (CfPS Acting Executive Director) thanked the Chair and speakers for a stimulating discussion. Accountability isn’t about bureaucracy or opposition but is about people coming together to solve problems. Accountability is complex – getting the choreography right (for example between central and local; between professionals and people who use services; between public and private) is tricky. Even in austere times accountability needs investment, balanced by an imperative to demonstrate value. Ultimately what is important is the extent to which principles of accountability are hardwired into the culture and values of public services. Accountability is vital – whether in Parliament; in local government; the media; in hospitals and care homes; in schools; and on housing estates. Accountability matters to public servants or private income generators – and CfPS is well placed to keep making the case through a vision of transparent, inclusive and accountable services; through a mission to influence policy and promote practice; through the concept of the web of accountability; through strategies for thought leadership and practical action.