Strengthen accountability to improve public sector, says Institute for Government

By agency reporter
April 24, 2018

A new project by the Institute for Government (IfG) aims to strengthen the lines of accountability between public sector workers, elected officials and the public they serve.

In a report launched today, Accountability in modern government, the IfG says weak accountability increases the risk of failure of public services – whether through financial mismanagement, chronic underperformance or the collapse of services.

The report finds the same patterns of failure repeatedly occurring:

  • Ministers and civil servants blame each other when things go wrong, which limits the chances of lessons being learned and mistakes avoided in future. This has affected flagship projects such as the roll-out of Universal Credit and, more recently, the Windrush immigration cases.
  • Even when failures are clearly attributable to ministers, many are not held to account for their decisions. Ministers responsible for the Metronet contracts or the outsourcing of probation services were never called to explain why they opted for risky, and ultimately wasteful approaches.
  • Poor contract management can often result in wider public services failures, from the millions of pounds lost in the overbilling for prisoner electronic tagging to the problems with benefit assessments. The recent collapse of Carillion highlights the importance of tackling these problems systematically.

The report argues that the UK’s system of accountability is not keeping up with the realities of modern government. This leads to repeated failures which harm the public and undermine trust in institutions. Tragedies like the Grenfell Tower fire provoke questions about who should be held to account.

At the same time, the report says there is a tendency to overemphasise blame when something goes wrong. This creates a high-stakes environment, where a perceived slip-up can end a career. Instead of frank conversations about what would be needed to improve the situation, the tendency is to obscure the facts.

Benoit Guerin at the Institute for Government, said, “Accountability helps people know how the Government is doing and where to go when things go wrong. A lack of accountability is worrying because it increases the risk of failure and decreases legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the public.

“With this project, we want to start a debate about how accountability in the public sector could be strengthened with the aim of making recommendations for reform. We welcome contributions from those interested in, and concerned about, the state of accountability in the UK.”

* Read Accountability in modern government: what are the issues? here

* Institute for Government


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