The Slow Road to Accountability

The traditional Westminster Model has come under considerable pressure in recent years. This area of this website contains separate pages which:

These subjects and other developments are also summarised in the Civil Service Reform area of this website.

This page explains why Parliament and ministers have in the past been very reluctant to make senior civil servants more obviously accountable for their their decisions and for the quality of their advice. 

The classic constitutional position is that (other than when spending public money) civil servants are accountable only to Ministers who are in turn accountable to Parliament and the media. But it seems strange that officials are thus sheltered from informed Parliamentary and other external comment on their role in major failures such as those listed here.  Should it not be possible for those harmed by such failures to tell whether:

Dan Hodges, for instance, was not the only one to suggest that officials should share some of the blame for the 2018 Windrush crisis which brought down Home Secretary Amber Rudd:

I'm bored of this, "Ministers can't hide behind civil servants" line. If civil servants screw up, they should carry the can as well. Some of them are becoming like underperforming footballers who say "Who cares. They won't sack me, they'll sack the manager.

There is however significant Ministerial and Parliamentary opposition to having officials share accountability with Ministers, for two main reasons.

First, Ministers who appear to have made poor decisions don't want to publish the advice they receive.  They would of course be happy to do so if the advice had proved to be poor, for they might then be excused for following it.  But they wouldn't want to publish advice which was correct - and which they had ignored.  But they could hardly be allowed to pick and choose which advice to publish, so they can't or won't publish anything, and so blame cannot be allocated or shared.

Second, the above reasoning suits the Opposition just as much as Ministers, because they can blame Ministers for everything that goes wrong, and so gain political advantage. And they know that they may be in power one day ...

Anonymity suits senior civil servants, too, when blame is being thrown around - especially as there are no senior civil service jobs outside the Senior Civil Service. Private sector execs can generally rebuild their careers elsewhere. Civil servants cannot.

Parliamentary Committees

House of Commons Select Committees would appear to be in a powerful position to investigate the causes of both policy successes and policy failures.  They typically calling for a wide range of evidence including from experts outside government, and they often analyse issues very thoroughly.  But they can sometimes appear to be much more interested in seeking political advantage than in learning useful lessons.  And civil servants who appear before Select Committees (other than the Public Accounts Committee) do so under instruction from Ministers, and are accordingly cautious and defensive, particularly - and most seriously - when drafting departmental evidence and responses to committee reports. 

Even the Public Accounts Committee (the PAC) seldom attempts to exert real influence over the way the government machine is managed.  I have yet to hear of any Accounting Officer whose primary aim, when dealing with the PAC, is other than to avoid censure.  Most of them start by assuming (correctly) that they probably won’t learn anything from their interaction with the PAC, and they certainly don’t feel that the purpose of the exercise is to improve or learn in any way. Worse still, many very good PAC reports have little or no impact.  There is no follow up.  The reports seldom if ever feature in civil service training programmes – although videos of embarrassed Accounting Officers certainly do, thus perpetuating their defensiveness.  Apart from this, everyone involved in a report just shrugs and moves on to the next issue. 

Michael Coolican reinforces this in his book No Tradesmen and No Women:

The repetitive nature of the issues that come before the Public Accounts Committee reinforces the point that there is little interest amongst civil servants in learning from the mistakes of others.  Although more senior civil servants are aware of the committee, its reports are not widely read and so it is not surprising that the lessons are not absorbed. 

But Change is Happening (Slowly)

Given this unsatisfactory state of affairs, there have been a number of recent attempts (two of them successful) to increase the effectiveness of external scrutiny of discussions between Ministers and their advisers.  It is interesting that they have been driven much more by HM Treasury than by Parliamentarians or ministers.  Follow this link to read more about them.


Martin Stanley

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