Standards watchdog launches review of accountability in public bodies

"Too often, public inquiries after a major failure reveal that problems were known about," CSPL says
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Government’s standards watchdog has launched a review into accountability in public bodies, warning that problems are too often not dealt with quickly and effectively.

Over the next few months, the Committee on Standards in Public Life will look at “where public bodies should focus their attention to maximise the likelihood of problems being uncovered and addressed before issues escalate and lives are damaged”.

In a letter to the prime minister about the review, CSPL chair Doug Chalmers said the committee had been “struck by how, when failures occur within public institutions, it repeatedly seems to be the case that indicators of emerging issues were present, but missed, with the result that the window to respond appropriately, before problems escalate, has often also been missed”.

In its announcement of the review, CSPL said it had seen “several examples of major failures within public institutions” in recent years where “opportunities were missed to address issues before they escalated”.

“We are asking, when things go wrong in public bodies, why does it take so long for problems to be recognised and the leadership to respond appropriately and, most importantly, what needs to change?”

Rather than reinvestigating previous incidents, the committee will look at how to encourage more effective accountability within public bodies “so that problems are addressed before catastrophic failure”, Chalmers said.

The inquiry will examine how the Nolan principles – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – can guide decision making in pubic bodies, as well as how public bodies can support parliament, regulators and other bodies to hold them to account on behalf of the public, according to terms of reference published today.

It will also look at examples of best practice in managing risk; the role of boards, including how they can more effectively provide timely challenge to an organisation; and how a healthy organisational culture can help public bodies to learn from their mistakes and act swiftly where needed.

CSPL has written to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee as well as Rishi Sunak to alert it to the review.

“Today, public service delivery is more complex than ever, implemented by a range of arms-length bodies and private sector companies. As public servants, knowing we are accountable to the public should guide our behaviour and our day-to-day decisions as we make them,” the letter to the PM – which was copied to Cabinet Office ministers Oliver Dowden and John Glen and the department’s ethics chief, Darren Tierney – read.

“Leaders throughout public life have responsibility for making sure that the processes and culture are in place within an organisation to facilitate good and timely decision making in the public interest and submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.”

As part of the review, CSPL has opened a consultation today inviting members of the public to submit evidence on why public bodies might fail to act quickly when problems arise, along with suggestions on how to tackle problems better and examples of good practice. The consultation closes on 14 June.

“When things go wrong, it is important to understand what happened and why. Accountability is one of the seven principles of public life. But all too often, public inquiries after a major failure reveal that problems were known about or there was information within the organisation that was not acted on quickly enough," Chalmers said.

"The human cost of these failures – as well as the financial cost to the taxpayer – is too much. And as artificial intelligence becomes more embedded across the public sector, it is important to better understand what accountability for decision making, when AI is involved, means."

He added: “We really want to hear from anyone who has experience or examples to share with us about how we drive stronger accountability within public bodies.”

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