PASC says arm’s-length government lacks transparency and accountability

The way arm’s-length government is structured and held to account was branded “confused” and “opaque” in a Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) report today, and the Cabinet Office was called upon to bring clarity to how these bodies and organisations work within the civil service.

By Samera Owusu Tutu

10 Nov 2014

The report says that while most public bodies answer to Ministers, some are directly accountable to Parliament, and to date accountability arrangements have been “ad-hoc”.

Bernard Jenkin MP, chair of PASC, said: “The key to accountability and effectiveness is the quality of relationships between the relevant department and its arm’s-length bodies. However complicated the arrangements may have to be, there is no excuse for lack of a clear understanding of statuses, roles and relationships.”

According to the report: “The Cabinet Office cannot micro-manage public bodies, but can improve sponsorship skills in the Civil Service and leadership in public bodies.”

The report recommends the creation of a taxonomy to classify the arm’s-length bodies, outlining how each is governed and overseen and where accountabilities lie. This system was first mooted by the Institute for Government (IfG) in its 2010 report, Read before Burning.

Tom Gash, director of research at IfG, stressed the importance of a system that explains why these bodies operate as they do: “Government needs to be much clearer about how much independence different arm’s-length bodies have, why this independence is needed, and how these bodies will be held to account for their performance.”

He added: “The important thing is to make sure they’re working properly”, and emphasised that the “rowing” that occurs when things go wrong causes the public to “lose confidence in the system”.

Rob Whiteman, chief executive of CIPFA and himself a former CEO of the UK Border Agency, believes the lack of clarity is perpetuated by central government and Whitehall silos. “The problem is that central government is not sufficiently transparent,” he said. “Decisions are taken behind closed doors and all advice is privileged in a way not adopted in other areas of the public sector.”

Whiteman argued that “major culture change is needed in the civil service and from Ministers to promote more open and accountable government,” and added: "If we are to see more joined up delivery of public services on the ground, we need to break down the traditional Whitehall ‘silos’.”

In response to the report, the Cabinet Office has flagged its work in reducing the number of public bodies since 2010, and the £2bn in savings it has achieved, but pointed to ongoing work designed to address any confusion. A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “There's more to do so we have begun a formal review to ensure the system is consistent, and that there is no confusion about where accountability lies.”

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