Julian McCrae: How to answer government’s accountability question

Whitehall accountability is focused on blame and governed by convention – but improvements are possible

Conducive to learning? MPs on the Public Accounts Committee, and representatives from the NAO, question officials in an evidence session Photo: PA

By Julian McCrae

23 Mar 2018

Accountability lies at the heart of democratic government. It enables people to know how the government is doing, and how to gain redress when things go wrong. It ensures ministers and civil servants are acting in the interests of the people they serve. Accountability is a part of good governance and it can increase the trustworthiness and legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the public.

Every day, 5.4m public sector workers deliver services ranging from healthcare to schools to national defence. A host of bodies hold them to account: the National Audit Office undertakes around 60 value-for-money inquiries a year; Ofsted inspects more than 5000 schools; and the main government ombudsmen dealt with nearly 80,000 complaints from the public in 2016-17 alone. And, of course, more than 21,000 elected officials, ranging from MPs to local councillors, scrutinise these services on behalf of citizens.


When accountability works properly, it helps the UK’s government to be among the best in the world. Public spending, for example, simply does not occur unless authorised by Parliament, and it routinely stays within set limits – something that cannot be said for many governments. The strong accountability that surrounds this – provided through oversight by the Treasury, audit by the NAO and scrutiny by the Public Accounts Committee – dates back to the 19th century and is deeply embedded in our way of doing things.

However, in areas where that accountability is weak, the risk of failure increases – whether financial mismanagement, the collapse of services or chronic under-performance. Numerous Institute for Government reports have documented failures that display the symptoms of weak accountability: a lack of clarity about who was responsible; a lack of consequences for poor performance; a lack of transparency and information; and, most tellingly, the same patterns of failure occurring repeatedly – on Universal Credit, probation outsourcing, and arm’s length bodies, to pick a few.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the IfG is returning to the theme of accountability. We will shortly be publishing a discussion paper that looks at the underlying causes of weak accountability, and sets out some tentative proposals for improvement.

Two of the underlying factors we have identified are particularly relevant to Whitehall. First, accountability is too focused on blame when it needs to focus on improvement. It is rarely seen as supporting people to do a better job; indeed, the opposite is the case, with aggressive questioning and high-profile witch hunts. It does not promote learning: instead of frank discussions about what went wrong, the tendency is to obscure the facts and claim things have improved, with little evidence to back this up. It therefore fails to provide space for appropriate risk-taking and innovation, instead creating a high-stakes environment where a perceived slip up can end a career.

Governed by convention

Second, there are fundamental gaps in accountability at the heart of Whitehall. Here accountability is governed by a set of conventions, which have evolved over time sometimes to reinforce, but often to undermine, accountability, and sustain a tradition of secrecy.

While the civil service is formally responsible to ministers, civil service impartiality places limits on how ministers can hold civil servants to account. Even when individual civil servants, as accounting officers, are directly responsible to Parliament, there is a lack of clarity about the consequences for bad (or good) performance. The “marriage” of ministers and civil servants – as characterised by leading Whitehall historian Lord Hennessey – effectively places the interests of those working within it ahead of “outsiders”, such as voters, taxpayers and service users.

Whitehall accountability is based on the myth that responsibility can be completely allocated to specific departments, neatly packaged up between individual ministers and their departmental officials. This denies reality. There are many issues – like increasing housebuilding – that can only be tackled by departments working together. Similarly, systemic weaknesses in financial management, in commercial relationships and in human resources can only be addressed on a cross-departmental basis. But Whitehall’s conventions actively hamper this.

There are obviously no silver bullets here. The public sector is large and complex, and some would claim that the present system has grown up to be the best it can be.

But we believe many improvements can be made, including through changes to structures, increased transparency, and moves to improve the culture. Some of these changes are already afoot – the PAC and Treasury have been working to provide greater transparency of accounting officer assessments, for example. We hope our work can build on such initiatives, and identify further ways to strength our system.

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