There is much talk today - both in public sector reform and more widely - about the concept of accountability. In the recent Open Public Services White Paper it is referred to over eighty times. What is going on here?
A familiar criticism of centralised public services is lack of accountability. Addressing this problem is obviously an important part of reform, and the coalition agenda of localism, handing power back to communities and re-engaging citizens in a new relationship with the state, potentially provides clear opportunities to do so.
Seeking to ensure that any reform measure delivers - or at least increases accountability, is a must. Surely nobody would dispute that accountability is a good thing? It is self-evidently in the public interest.
But what is accountability? Frequently, it seems to be assumed that the answer is so obvious that it does not need explaining. The danger is that the term is used in such a wide and simplistic way that it becomes seriously devalued, and virtually meaningless.
Accountability arises where one person or group of people entrust something (usually money or power) to somebody else. That somebody else therefore holds such power or assets on trust, on behalf of others. Not only does the law usually impose quite strict duties on them not to misuse that position of trust, but those who have done the entrusting expect the recipient to report back from time to time on what they have done - to give an account.
Centralised public services are rightly criticised for lack of accountability because those who have paid money through central taxation frequently they have no voice or influence
The classic instance is the committee or board of directors reporting back to members or shareholders on what they have done over the last twelve months with the money or assets or control entrusted to them. They are required to ‘give an account’. Those who placed the trust in them can then ‘hold them to account’. They can congratulate for doing a good job, correct them where improvement is needed, or replace where performance is unsatisfactory. It is a constant, iterative process.
Centralised public services are rightly criticised for lack of accountability because those who have paid money through central taxation - and entrusted power through an electoral process - not only have no effective means of congratulating, correcting or replacing, but frequently they have no voice or influence at all in the future delivery of those services. It is an awfully long chain of relationships between the tax-paying citizen (you and me) and the front-line delivery of services. Hence the frequent criticism.
All too often today we hear about how an organisation is ‘accountable’ to a commissioner, or to a regulator, or to the market. But a commissioner’s job is to make sure that a contract is performed. A regulator’s job is to ensure that statutory requirements are fulfilled. The market is merely a reflection, in the minds of those in the market-place, of how well an organisation is doing.
None of these are personal relationships, of trust imposed, of reporting back and reviewing, of congratulating, correcting or replacing, or of influencing the plans for the future. They may be important relationships, but it is not helpful to call this ‘accountability’; it does not help you and me to have a say, or hold anyone to account.
Legitimacy and trust
Accountability is important, because without accountability there can be no legitimacy. Those who hold power over others, whether as political leaders or public sector managers, do so at their peril.
Where they are accountable, their continued holding of power can be tested and continually legitimised, providing a basis for trust. They may then have the authority to do potentially far-reaching things. Mutual, co-operative and member-based organisations have accountability built in to their ownership and governance.
Power held without accountability lacks legitimacy, endangers the institution and is ultimately unsustainable
Depending on the particular organisation, service-users, staff, and the general public have a direct say in the organisation, which is perhaps why the coalition is so keen on supporting this sort of organisation.
Where accountability is lacking, the continued holding of power may be tolerated (at least for a time), but it can never be legitimate. There is a reduced likelihood that those holding power will make good decisions - especially in times of trouble - and ones that are in the interests of those they should be serving. Their continuation in office may even endanger the survival of the very institution under which they hold power.
From the French Revolution to the Arab Spring, it is clear that power held without accountability lacks legitimacy, endangers the institution and is ultimately unsustainable.
It is no surprise that a government which wishes to change the very relationship between citizen and state, and to make dramatic changes to the fabric of public service provision wants to talk so much about accountability. Delivering accountability is not so straightforward.
Cliff Mills is a leading practitioner in the law and governance of co-operative, mutual and membership based organisations.
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