Governance and accountability: from dull subject to hot topic

Catherine Staite
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.

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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.

Councillors: Engage more and engage differently, but not at the expense of the basics

Karin Bottom, Catherine Mangan and Thom Oliver

This month saw the ‘Communities and Local Government Committee’ release its report on the role of the modern councillor. Focusing on  the impact of the Localism Act (and associated  developments in recent years),  Clive Betts MP,  Chair of the Committee,  suggested that local representatives are now spending less time in council and more in the community. As a result, they now shoulder the majority of responsibility for ensuring that  that their local communities have the tools to make the most of the localities in which they live. While the Report’s findings held few surprises, it did suggest that those we elect to be the local democratic voice of our communities must embrace this challenge and meet it head on. This position resonates with early findings from an INLOGOV project concerned with local engagement and the role of the local representative.

Firmly grounded in the belief that councillors’ responsibilities and remits vary, the current climate suggests they require a more nuanced and responsive skill set than ever.  In this sense, elected representatives must be outward looking, open to new ideas and welcoming of new approaches, but they must take care not to throw out the baby with the bath water.  Instead, our research suggests that what councillors need to do is integrate new learning into their existing repertoire of behaviours, while at the same time being more dynamic and responsive in their increasingly frontline role.[i]

For respondents, one of the main challenges they felt they faced was engagement. Whereas it is natural for all councillors to ‘do engagement’, a variety of approaches were evident in our research and for those who had moved into executive positions, the role shift was accompanied by community activities having to be curtailed. Respondents were very clear that the Localism Act was beginning to have an impact, for example in the mediating role that  has now been allocated to councillors: this meant developing skills as a community organiser and ultimately being on top of a great volume of information while managing a number of resources and contacts. This form of community engagement, though hard, was thought to have clear  rewards: a number saw the benefits of having shared aims and  a deeper understanding of the people they represented,  which in turn provided greater insight into the experience of being on the receiving end of council services; in contrast others thought wider community engagement created opportunities to lead opinion and ultimately change behaviour, for example one councillor worked with environmental groups to shape the ward’s attitude towards refuse collections and recycling.

Our interviews also surfaced information suggesting that that the majority of traditional communication methods continue alongside a slow evolution to greater online engagement and use of social media. While one councillor referred to sending regular email shots and creating a web page to articulate local information, activities and updates,  another described  how Facebook had enabled him to engage with people – often young people – who  generally chose not to participate in politics and local policy conversations. Finally, a number of councillors explained that twitter enabled them to aggregate opinions en mass, engage in debates and learn information they would otherwise be unaware of,  while some with cabinet responsibilities stated that this particular medium was unique in that it enabled them to keep on top of their portfolio while also providing opportunities to build and consolidate relationships they would otherwise not have had time to address..

One factor that was evident in almost every interview was that councillors always needed to be aware of the bigger picture: different methods worked in different situations and knowing a ward’s story or the history behind a particular community group could make the difference between successful and unsuccessful engagement. Just because a particular approach might work in one instance, there is no assurance it will work in another, despite apparent similarities. So, while councillors may see their responsibilities increasing and their community role broadening, it is vital that they maintain depth in their representative activities: if they don’t, potentially successful initiatives run the risk of failing.  

The authors are grateful to the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, for providing funds to assist in this research. With thanks also to NLGN for their contribution to this work.  For further information about the research project, contact Karin A. Bottom: k.a.bottom@bham.ac.uk

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Karin Bottom is Lecturer in British Politics and Research Methods at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.  Her core research areas comprise parties (particularly small and the BNP), party systems and party theory.  She is particularly interested in concepts of relevance and how national level theories can be utilised at the sub-national level.

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Catherine Mangan is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV.  Her interests include public sector re-design, outcomes based commissioning and behaviour change.  Prior to joining INLOGOV she managed the organisational development and change work for a not-for-profit consultancy, specialising in supporting local government; and has also worked for the Local Government Association, and as Deputy Director of the County Councils Network.  She specialises in adult social care, children’s services and partnerships.

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Thom Oliver is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes Business School.  He completed his PhD, exploring the representative role of councillors on appointed bodies, at INLOGOV in 2011. He currently lives in Bristol and has recently rejoined INLOGOV as an Associate.  Follow his Twitter account here, and read his own blog here.


[i] Research to date provides initial findings from interviews in three councils (one London Borough and two Metropolitan).  Interviews comprised a broad mix of age, seniority, roles and experience. Approximately equivalent numbers of men and women were interviewed.

The bonfire of the quangos has thus far only smouldered

Katherine Tonkiss and Katharine Dommett

Quangos, non-departmental public bodies, or arm’s length bodies (ALBs), as they are variably termed, are a category of public organisations that operate with a degree of independence from ministers. These bodies have become an established feature of government, created to deliver policy, offer expertise and regulation (among other functions). Yet despite their proliferation they have been widely condemned by the political class and are subject to frequent reviews and culls. In reality few attempts to address the number and significance of bodies have, thus far, yielded much success. Indeed, hitherto the bonfires of quangos have smouldered rather than raged.

In this light David Cameron’s call in 2009 for the existence of ‘each and every quango’ to be justified in accordance with three tests appeared little more than a restatement of established political rhetoric. However, building on the Conservative manifesto commitment, the Coalition Government moved quickly to ‘reduce the number and cost of quangos’, conducting a review in the summer of 2010. After just five months in government 902 quangos had been surveyed and 200 bodies scheduled for abolition, 120 for merger and 176 for substantial reform. This early pace signalled a clear determination on the part of the Government to shrink the size of the state, informed by their desire to reduce ‘the cost of bureaucracy and the number of public bodies’, ‘to increase accountability’ and to achieve ‘efficiency, effectiveness and economy in the exercise of public functions’.

Two years on, the recently published Public Bodies 2012 report provides an overview of this reformed quango landscape. But what level of success has been attained? Each of the Government’s objectives is assessed in turn below, evaluating progress thus far and identifying future challenges to the reform agenda.

Are There Fewer Quangos?

The implementation of the reform programme was rapid, despite occurring in a period of relative instability (given budget and staffing reductions, as well as widespread civil service reform). Public Bodies 2012 states that since 2010 the number of NDPBs has been reduced by 220. While this denotes substantial progress on this objective, most bodies abolished thus far have been smaller advisory bodies and many functions have survived, being transferred into departments, executive agencies or merged into the remit of other bodies. Accordingly, while the numbers of arm’s length bodies is reducing, the scope of government is not necessarily shrinking.

In addition, a number of new bodies have been created by the coalition. Public Bodies 2012 notes that nine new bodies have been created since 2010 – six independent monitoring boards, the National Employment Savings Trust, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. However, the scope of Public Bodies 2012 is limited to NDPBs only, and this prevents a wider appreciation of changes in arm’s length bodies more generally. For example, some new executive agencies – such as the four created in the Department for Education, the Legal Aid Agency, the proposed National Crime Agency – and also other organisational forms such as the Office of Tax Simplification (an ‘independent office of the Treasury’) are NDPBs in a new form. The overt focus on numbers of NDPBs therefore misses the wider question of where functions of government are located – and many are remaining at arm’s length.

Have They Saved Money?

The belief that inefficiency and poor governance was rife within public bodies provided a key motivation to not only abolish but also reform ALB governance. In embarking on the reform programme, the Cabinet Office publicised anticipated savings of £2.6 billion by 2015 and ongoing savings of between £800 and £900 million a year after the Spending Review. A third of the initial saving (£0.9billion) was predicted to come from the abolition of two bodies, the Regional Development Agencies and Becta, yet the rest was based on imprecise and often incomparable data from departments. For example, some estimated reductions were based on spending review requirements, whilst others focused exclusively on savings from ALB reform.

This lack of consistency led an NAO report to argue that the Cabinet Office did ‘not yet have the means to confirm the removal of £2.6 billion from administrative budgets’ or to check that this money was the result of savings rather than cuts. In its response, the Government highlighted that this figure incorporates wider efficiency savings from bodies that will continue to exist, but acknowledged that the cost of reform was still unclear. Indeed, the projected savings stemming from reform have recently been reviewed, and Public Bodies 2012 puts administrative savings at £401 million in the year 2011/12.

Furthermore, in calculating the money saved, little attention has been directed to the costs of transition, failing to consider the difficulties of, for example, disposing of assets and addressing redundancy costs. While the NAO has estimated transition to potentially cost £830 million, Public Bodies 2012 estimates the cost of reform to be between £650 million and £800 million. This wide variation in estimates again highlights the challenges faced by the Cabinet Office in demonstrating that efficiencies are a direct result of the public bodies reform agenda.

Are They More Accountable?

Government has sought to increase the accountability of ALBs by bringing them closer to departments and Ministers. In addition to the newly created executive agencies, the functions of 9 bodies have been transferred to executive agencies (which are said to enjoy far less autonomy from Government compared to other forms of ALB); and 16 have been transferred into departments. For the bodies that remain, a process of triennial review is being implemented whereby each body is subject to independent review every three years – serving to provide departments and Ministers with more awareness of their ALBs and thus improve the accountability (and efficiency) of these bodies.

However, the idea that moving bodies closer to the centre will increase accountability is not as clear cut as it seems. There is a risk that functions in, for example, executive agencies, will not be scrutinised to the same extent as those in NDPBs where triennial reviews occur. In reducing the length of the arm at which key functions are exercised, there is therefore a risk that formal structures of accountability, enhanced as a part of the reform programme, are bypassed.

Conclusion

The public bodies reform programme has represented a radical attempt to streamline arm’s length governance in the UK. The speed at which reform has been implemented and the numerous bodies abolished or otherwise reformed denotes considerable success over these first two years of reform. However, it remains unclear as to whether the reform programme will deliver on the government’s objectives to improve the efficiency and accountability of the arm’s length governance landscape.

The Government has committed to implementing a ‘benefits realisation framework’ which will enable departments to ‘better define, measure and optimise all forms of value created in consistent and credible way’, with a greater emphasis on improving the efficiency and accountability of the bodies that survived the cull. With these new developments, there is a possibility that the initial momentum of reform will be maintained, allowing the government to deliver greater efficiency and accountability across the public bodies landscape.

There remains, however, a broader challenge in terms of how public bodies reform is reconciled with wider civil service reforms. Public bodies reform was, in part, a centripetal process involving the transfer of functions back into departments. In contrast, the Civil Service Reform Plan clearly has a centrifugal logic that is based around pushing functions away from Whitehall and traditional bureaucratic structures, through emerging models of service delivery such as outsourcing and mutualisation. The next phase of public bodies reform will need to reconcile these contrasting logics in a way that delivers efficiency while still serving the accountability goal of public bodies reform.

This post was originally featured on the LSE British Policy and Politics Blog on 17th January.

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Katherine Tonkiss (INLOGOV) and Katharine Dommett (University of Sheffield) are Research Fellows on Shrinking the State, a research project exploring public bodies reform in the UK, and drawing on historical and international comparisons. The project is led by Professor Chris Skelcher (Birmingham) and Professor Matthew Flinders (Sheffield). The authors acknowledge the financial support of the ESRC (Grant Ref. ES/J010553/1). The views expressed are those of the authors.

What Difference Might Police and Crime Commissioners Make?

John Raine and Paul Keasey

The elections on 15th November 2012 of 41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) for the police force areas of England and Wales (outside London) represents the start of one of the biggest experiments in democratic governance. The new office of PCC, for which there is no known precedent in policing around the world, surely represents the most significant change in at least fifty years in how the police in England and Wales are governed and held to account. The replacement of Police Authorities (an assembly of nominated councillors and independent members) by PCCs has generated much public debate since it was first proposed back in 2010. Proponents argued that it would make the police more directly accountable and more responsive to local communities. Opponents, on the other hand, highlighted the potential for politicising the police and for local populist policies to take precedence over other vital, but less visible, national policing priorities; for example, counter-terrorism and serious organised crime.

Whatever the realities, it is clear that the introduction of PCCs has the potential to engender any number of far reaching and significant developments in the fields of policing, criminal justice and community safety, more broadly, and the change deserves to be closely monitored and evaluated.  While some of the key intended ‘outcomes’, such as better police performance and enhanced public confidence and trust in the police, may only become apparent over the longer term, there are other important issues concerning the change of democratic ‘process’ that are certainly of more immediate interest.

Among the many interesting questions raised in this respect three seem especially significant to us:  first, what might be the implications of the new framework for the nature and patterns of accountability, authority and influence regarding policing policy and practice?  Second, to what extent can the introduction of new framework be seen as being congruent with the Coalition Government’s policy goals of ‘localism’, enhanced democratic governance and citizen engagement? And third, how might the ‘local commissioning’ role of PCCs affect the wider criminal justice and community safety policy and institutional landscape beyond policing?

And what makes these questions particularly interesting is the complex interplay of actors and accountabilities involved in the new framework.  For example, the PCC, as a directly-elected office holder, will feel accountable to the local voters for local policing priorities and practices in their particular police area but it is the chief constable who remains wholly responsible for operational policing matters. At the same time, while local voters will have chosen their PCC primarily to address their concerns and priorities, there is also an accountability requirement on the PCC in relation to national policing priorities as established by the Home Secretary (through what is referred to as the ‘Strategic Policing Requirement’). Moreover, since most PCCs will have stood as candidates for a particular national political party they are also likely to feel some sense of accountability towards their political masters, whether/or both at national level or locally. Then one further element of complexity arises in the form of Police and Crime Panels (PCPs), these having been established in each police area, and comprising nominated local councillors, whose role is (also) to hold the PCC to account.

It will be fascinating to see just how these competing pressures on PCCs will work out in practice in different parts of the country; and how the tensions are resolved between, for example: national and local policing priorities; between local voter priorities and political party priorities; between the chief constables’ operational responsibilities and the PCC’s role in strategic oversight; and between the professional advice and authority of the chief constable on the one hand, and the scrutinizing attentions of the local Police and Crime Panel on the other.  Probably some sparks must be expected to fly in some quarters as opinions, backgrounds, sources of authority and personalities vie with one another to try and impose their way, and not least at a time of shrinking police budgets because of the austerity climate of the public finances.

A fuller description of such accountability tensions and implications is to be found in our recent article – Raine JW and P Keasey (2012) ‘From Police Authorities to Police and Crime Commissioners: might policing become more publicly accountable?’, International Journal of Emergency Services, 1, 2, 122-134.

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John Raine is Professor of Management in Criminal Justice at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.  He has been involved in criminal justice research, consultancy and teaching at Birmingham for some twenty-five years and has a strong track record of commissions for the Home Office, Lord Chancellor’s Department/Department for Constitutional Affairs/Ministry of Justice on aspects of policy and practice within the criminal (and civil) justice sectors).

Paul Keasey is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham.  His doctoral thesis focuses on the impact of the Police and Crime Commissioners initiative and, in part, their affect upon public confidence in policing.  Paul is also a Superintendent in West Midlands Police.

Local Government and the Democratic Mandate: An Outdated Model?

Martin Stott

Local government could never be described as fashionable, yet today there is more talk than ever about the importance of ‘the local’.  However, this has converted into less, rather than more, freedom to act locally.  Whitehall’s desire to control is strong, as the current freeze on council tax rises demonstrates.  Local government hasn’t suffered as much at the hands of Whitehall as the NHS, where the current reorganisation follows countless previous ones – none of which have any clear rationale other than to undo the actions of a previous Minister and ‘prove’ that the new Minister is in charge.

The reason that local government has remained untouched by similar reorganisation is because it has one priceless asset that the NHS has never had.  An independent democratic mandate.

But that’s the rub.  Nothing drives Westminster politicians wilder than others challenging their supposedly democratic right to rule.  But local government did and still does.  Hence it’s abiding unpopularity in Whitehall and Westminster.  The excuses are many and varied – ‘inefficiency’ (when was democracy ever efficient?), ‘cost’ (let us try and recall local government equivalents of Whitehall’s IT and defence procurement fiascos, amongst others), ‘postcode lotteries’ (isn’t that a subjective term for local decision-making?), ‘poor quality of elected members (remind me which political parties put up these candidates?).

In the end though, the reality was summed up for me by a member of Tony Blair’s Cabinet, himself ex-local government, who when I asked him once over dinner how many local authorities he thought there should be in England, replied firmly “one”.

The government’s plan for fragmentation, competing foci of accountability and localism without democracy (‘localism lite’) has continued apace.  Examples of this include:

  • Police Commissioners.  Elections in November 2012 will confer a certain cloak of democratic legitimacy but with a few exceptions, their jurisdictions will have little connection to existing democratic jurisdictions.
  • The NHS.  It’s hard, even now, to know what the NHS reforms will really mean in practice, with local authorities having been ‘given’ responsibility for public health – as if environmental health, trading standards or waste management had nothing to do with the subject already.  And will GP Commissioners engage effectively with local authorities about the health of their populations when their accountability remains to Whitehall?
  • Schools.  Not long ago, local authorities were deliverers of education from 4-18, however this is now disappearing with the introduction of academies, foundation schools, free schools and the like.  The mantra is ‘freeing schools from local authority control’, but this means that the schools will have no direct democratic link with their localities.
  • The planning system.  The right of individual property owners to develop their land was nationalised under the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.  The process of granting or refusing ‘planning permission’ was then delegated to local authorities.  Brick by brick, the Localism Act, and the Infrastructure Planning Commission and its successors have removed the foundations of democratic local determination.
  • Elected Mayors.  The argument for mayors is simple.  A single point of accountability for things that go wrong – or right – in a locality.  The problem is that giving a single person a lot of power can be a recipe for corruption, and doesn’t allow for the nuances, ambiguities and consensus-building that is so important in local democracy.

Despite all this, by and large, local government has risen to the challenges of the last two decades.  Gone are the command and control attitudes – the diverse ecology of local public service provision has made a new way of working essential and local government has found itself sharing responsibility rather than working alone.

There remains a distinct division of opinion in local government between the ‘local authority as service provider’ view and the ‘local authority as community leader and local voice’ perspective.  The two aren’t necessarily in conflict, but the rise of the customer has led to a view in some quarters that service provision is all.  High quality value for money public services are a very important part of what local government offers.  But if that was all it offered, why both with the democracy bit?

There are plenty of companies delivering high quality public services efficiently, but there is a gap in the market for local leadership, the championing of ‘place’, the focus for the expression of local democratic legitimacy.  Sadly the trend seems to be in the wrong direction as, rather than bolstering local government, its powers and responsibilities are being stripped.

Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government.  He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.