Accountability is the lifeblood of good governance. Good leaders understand that they are responsible for the well-being of others, that they need to explain their actions, really listen to those on whom those actions have an impact and act swiftly to put things right if they go wrong. They know that the higher the level of vulnerability of the people they serve, the higher the duty of care – to serve the powerless and not to demean or demonize them. Good leaders would say that none of that needs to be said because governance and accountability are written through their everyday working lives like lettering through rock. That may be true of good leaders but it isn’t true of everyone.
There are so many flaws in our fragmented systems of governance that it can be very hard to understand who really is accountable when things go wrong. There has been much focus recently on the negative impacts of privatising regulatory services but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Just think about the outsourcing of benefits assessment to a demonstrably incompetent company, the divestment of social housing from councils, the purchaser/provider split in health and the structural, professional, financial and organisational chasms between health and social care. All of those exercises in fragmentation result in the people all these different services serve falling through those cracks without ever understanding who is responsible for their suffering. Homelessness is a classic example of this phenomenon. Failure compounds failure and more energy is expended on shunting the blame than on solving the problems.
That might lead us to believe that all we need to do to put things right is tidy up a bit and then create a couple more regulatory bodies, et voila, job done. That has always appealed to me; I do love a tidy structure. But even as I crave order, I know that we’ll never achieve it. The reality is that systems, structures and processes in both the public and private sectors are complex and messy and doubly so where sectors intersect, as in public transport or primary care. If we tidy up in one place, we’ll create knock-on messiness somewhere else. We’d do better to focus on the people in the system – on developing their skills and strengthening their values so they understand the real importance of good governance and the critical role of accountability.
The key to future good governance and accountability lies in the way in which we recruit, train, develop, manage and lead our 21st century public servants. That is also true of our democratic representatives. A democratic mandate alone does not confer wisdom or effectiveness. Yet, most councils have cut their staff and member development budgets to the bone, as development is a luxury and not a vital necessity.
We all the see the necessity of the maintenance and repair of our cars, our computers and our washing machines. The maintenance and good governance of our organisations is even more important. Mechanical failures can cause many problems but the failure of organisations destroys lives.
Catherine Staite is Professor of Public Management and Director of Public Service Reform at the University of Birmingham. As Director of Public Service Reform, Professor Catherine Staite leads the University’s work supporting the transformation and reform of public services, with a particular focus on the West Midlands. As a member of INLOGOV, Catherine leads our on-line and blended programmes, Catherine also helps to support INLOGOV’s collaboration with a wide range of organisations, including the Local Government Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives as well as universities in the USA, Europe, Australia and China. She was named by the Local Government Chronicle, in 2015 and 2016 as one of the top 100 most influential people in local government.