This post is an extension from the eye-watering performance by Anthony Inglese of HMRC who got roasted alive in front of the Public Accounts Committee – a real “rabbit in the headlights” performance. I imagine that this performance will become part of the teaching and learning materials for new Civil Service Fast Streamers in the same way that the footage of Sir David Omand’s performance in front of the Public Accounts Committee in early 2000 became a lesson of “This is what happens when you screw up.” If you were one of those who had to cancel their holidays in 1999 because of the Passport Office fiasco, the above transcript is the kicking those in charge got as a result.
It’s often the case that the cover-up (that is subsequently uncovered) gets far more coverage than the initial action or mistake. In a culture where admitting mistakes is seen as a weakness (rather than a strength – in particular “this is how we are going to correct it and this is what we are going to do to reduce the chances of it happening again”) and U-turns are political suicide, I’m not surprise that so many organisations go to such extraordinary lengths to cover up mistakes.
A little bit on accountability within The State
The principle of accountability – and the lines of accountability as far as the UK Parliament is as follows: Citizens get together at election time to elect a representative for their constituency as their Member of Parliament (MP) – that MP representing the interests of ALL constituents, not just those that voted for that individual. By convention, the monarch appoints as Prime Minister the leader of the party that gains the most seats in Parliament – ‘the individual who can command the confidence of the House’ as is often said. The Prime Minister recommends ministerial appointments to the monarch.
MPs have the job of scrutinising the plans, actions, spending and legislation that is tabled before Parliament – ultimately because every year MPs have to approve the government’s taxation and spending plans (which formally releases money to government departments) through the annual Finance Bill – the Budget. (This is why at the end of each budget speech, the Chancellor says “…and I commend this Budget to the House” – which is basically saying “Please can you approve my spending plans and give me the money?”
Civil servants formally have to wait for the Budget to be approved before delegations from ministers and accounting officers (normally Permanent Secretaries who are responsible for ‘value for money’ for spending within their departments) before making any financial and contractual commitments. Longer term contracts and grant funding agreements contain (or should contain) the clause “subject to Parliamentary approval” where contracts extend into the future beyond the scope of an annual Finance Bill. Civil servants are responsible to ministers for the delivery of policies and programmes, ministers are accountable to Parliament for the success or otherwise of those polices and programmes, and MPs within Parliament report back to you, the tax payer and voter for the work that they have done in scrutinising the work the government has done in spending money it has raised from you through general taxation.
Changing the mindset of the public sector
The above was a whistle-stop tour of the systems and conventions that are in place. However, accountability can only work as well as the people, systems and information that are there to drive it. 20 years ago (1991) John Major introduced a Citizens’ Charter which saw the start of widespread attempts to make information held in the corridors of Whitehall more available to the general public. It also marked a ‘step change’ (I hate that phrase too) in the use of statistics to demonstrate improvements in public services – such as school league tables. Remember that these were the days when newspapers made a big thing about which football clubs politicians supported.
This was followed up by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 which parts of the civil service fought tooth and nail to prevent. The fact that it took three years to turn manifesto commitment into legislation – followed by another five years before it came fully into force (1st January 2005 – six months after I joined the civil service) speaks volumes. (To say nothing of the huge number of exemptions it has compared to its American counterpart and the European Union-driven Environmental Information Regulations.)
Thus it is only relatively recently that the public sector has had to change its mindset from “Information should be withheld from the general public unless there is a very good reason to release it” to “Information should be released to the general public unless there is a very good reason to withhold it”
What is disconcerting for some – in particular decision makers at the top of large organisations, is that in the social media world, they no longer have the control over information that they once had. The most visible area we’ve seen this is with the policing of protests. Citizens are now openly holding to account the statements that senior police officers make to the media and to Parliament – one of the most regular of these being the wearing of identity numbers on epaulettes (shoulders) so that individual officers can be identified in instances of alleged misconduct.
Who has what information?
Websites such as What do they know? perform a splendid task in helping people hold public bodies to account. Without the information and data, it’s much more difficult to hold decision makers to account. On the issue of data, I agree with the principle that with data collection funded by the tax payer – in particular anything collected in a project that went ahead as a result of research funding funded by the tax payer (such as through the research councils), that data should be made available for free to the public on the grounds that we’ve already paid for it. Much as I sympathise with the plight of cash-strapped public bodies such as local councils, the cash-strapped-ness is as a result of political decisions. It is those political decisions that should be questioned rather than seeking to charge the public twice over for things that they have already paid for in an attempt to compensate. For those of you interested in all things open data, Sam Smith, Hadley Beeman and Richard Taylor are the people to follow.
What do you do when you discover the bad stuff?
There then comes to the issue of how to hold people and organisations to account once the bad stuff has been discovered. Fred Goodwin still hasn’t had his knighthood stripped from him and he is still getting his pension. I can’t think of any major UK prosecutions on the back of the banking collapse. The system of departmental questions in Parliament does not allow individual MPs to follow up their initial questions in the way that select committees allow. Directors of large firms are seeing their salaries rise far in excess of those who work for their firms or of the profits that their firms make. What of the role of non executive directors on the last point – they are supposed to stand up for the interests of share holders. I made this point in an earlier blogpost on non-execs. What about the fund managers who manage the funds on behalf of those of us that pay into them? How are they holding non-execs to account? If they are failing in that regard, are they being paid too much? Are they being paid too much anyway?
What actions will the politicians take?
It’s all very well for politicians to bleat about how bad this all is, and for banking executives to make calls for banks to become good citizens, but what about some action? When was the last time the world changed for the better by someone squealing “Bad stuff is happening and someone must do something about it!”??? Edward VIII’s oft (mis)quoted ‘something must be done’ didn’t lead to seismic changes for the plight of the miners in South Wales. I can’t see similar mutterings from those in power having anything other than a negligible impact. Hence why I completely understand why people in the #Occupy movements have taken to camping out in very public places – trying to force the hand of those decision makers to take concrete actions to deal with the economic social fallout of the biggest economic crisis for many decades.