Civil Service Accountability: Who Guards the Guardians? – A response


A response to Professor Colin Talbot’s blogpost on civil service accountability 

Some of you will be familiar with my previous posts on this issue – Accountability from November 2011, The Civil Service vs The Public Accounts Committee from February 2012 and Contractual vs Democratic Accountability from March 2012. I also recommend (for those of you with the time/patience/interest this speech by Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee who has senior civil servants in her sights.

Much as I’d have loved to have gone to that seminar, the likelihood of an anonymous blogger whose best friend is a dragon fairy being invited to such a thing is somewhere between nought and zero. That said, if the Constitution Committee decide to follow through with Professor Talbot’s recommendation to investigate this, I hope they will do things that open up their investigation to a wide audience rather than restricting it to the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster. Why? Because the civil service is not just London-based. In my experience not enough policy officials have had enough experience outside of London to see what the civil service looks like both across the country, and what Whitehall looks like from a distance.

The civil service as a monolith 

The civil service is such a large institution made up of many people that it is very difficult to treat it as a monolithic entity even though it is often derided as one in the media. It’s a bit like when people refer to ‘the PC brigade’ – it’s in some people’s minds but not so straight forward when it comes to naming the individuals who are the decision-makers. The diverse nature of the civil service means that having more senior civil servants appearing before select committees on their own will not be enough.

One of the recent developments with Hodge is the summoning of civil servants to account for their actions in previous posts – the highest profile case being Dame Helen Ghosh. In principle I don’t have a problem with this. What I have a slight issue with on this is whether the same treatment is dealt out to ministers and captains of industry after they have left their jobs. The only recent examples I can think of where such individuals have been subject to hostile questioning is with the banking collapse & the Iraq Inquiry.

Civil servants accountable to local government?

The local delivery element of a number of public services – such as Job Centre Plus gives rise to the possibility of more local accountability to local authorities as the Coalition pursues its localism agenda. Institutionally, how do you manage that? The lines of control within the Job Centre go all the way up to a chief executive who is ultimately accountable to ministers.

Increasing the resources and powers of select committees

Coming back to my point on select committees, in September 2011 I stated that select committees are not nearly as well resourced as they should be compared to the responsibilities they have on scrutiny. (See The impact and influence of parliamentary select committees). Some select committees have huge remits – such as Work and Pensions, Health, Home Affairs and The Treasury in terms of institutions. Proper scrutiny of the civil service and ministers is not going to come about unless select committees have both the resources – and the powers to hold ministers and civil servants to account.

A greater role for the Civil Service Commissioners?

This is an option. At the moment the remit of the Commissioners is very narrow. (See here). Should consideration be given for increasing the remit of the Commissioners as well as formalising lines of accountability to the Public Administration Select Committee and the Constitution Committee – perhaps under a joint committee of both houses to cover the civil service?

Embracing Freedom of Information

Sometimes getting information out of the civil service can be like getting blood out of a stone. Sue Cameron gave senior civil servants a kicking in The Telegraph about this earlier – saying they should not be so defensive. Part of the problem is the hydra that is knowledge and information management. You think you’ve dealt with one head and another three pop up. Yet the costs of trying to bring in a decent Electronic Documents & Records Management System (EDRMS) are prohibitive. Going through the process of purging electronic files of documents no longer needed is a laborious and time-consuming (though potentially fascinating – if you are historically-minded) process. With this I’m not talking about getting rid of really important stuff. I’m thinking about that set of minutes that someone started, saved and forgot they had saved it, then starting on a new version later that week, or that random set of photographs from an event with the junior minister. I’ve not even started on email accounts. So potentially we’re talking needles and haystacks.

Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 requires public bodies subject to the Act to proactively publish official information. On data sets, transparency campaigners appear to be winning with the development of Transparency though can only go so far. Publishing something is not the same as publicising something. Publishing something does not always assume that people are going to be able to decode whatever it is that has been published. Publishing things all at once (something the present and previous governments have been accused of at the end of every major session of Parliament with announcements) increases the risk of things being buried. Politically convenient but not very public spirited.

Educating the public on how the civil service functions

Hence why I think there is a huge role for helping educate the general public about how the civil service works. Puffles’ House Rule No.6 for those of you who are interested. It was in Puffles’ (and my) remit when I was in the civil service and is still there now. The blogpost Social media guidance for public servants was an example of this in action long after I had left the civil service. The question is who should do the educating institutionally? There’s the Hansard Society for Parliament and Parliament’s outreach programme, but I can’t think of any equivalent where policy civil servants systematically go around the country going into schools, workplaces and voluntary organisations explaining how government works.

Part of that education process could involve (as Sue Cameron alludes to in her article) some of the advice that goes up to ministers after a decision has been made. This could be particularly useful with the emerging processes of post-legislative scrutiny of bills in the years after they have been enacted. Knowing for example what was in the risk registers at the time might significantly aid such scrutiny, rather than trying to keep them under lock and key for years. Coming back to the issue of scrutinising decision-makers after they have long gone, post-legislative scrutiny of the now Health and Social Care Act 2012 would make for interesting viewing in a few years time with risk registers and advice being made public. Whether that will happen though…is another question.


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