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OPINION - THE ACCOUNTABILITY DILEMMA

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I was asked to speak on the subject of accountability to a public sector audience. ...
I was asked to speak on the subject of accountability to a public sector audience.

This is one of those terms which is hard to define and tends to mean different things to different people.

But we do need to get accountability right, and this means also getting it in proportion. We cannot do this until we understand the relationship of accountability to responsibility and trust. In the good old days, anyone who called themselves a professional, or people in positions of authority, had the tacit trust and confidence of the public. Lamentable though it may be, this is no longer the case. All across the public sphere, accountability is demanded of those in positions of responsibility and authority.

At its simplest this means giving an account of how such responsibilities are being carried out so that whoever granted those responsibilities can be reassured of a job well done.

In local government life is not so simple. To whom are officers and councillors accountable, and for what? The spectrum of views is wide. Some would like to roll back accountability requirements to the electoral mandate. Vote for us and judge us on our record. Unfortunately, the problem with this is decreasing turn outs and voter apathy.

Recognising this, at the other end of the spectrum, are those who want more opportunity to give accounts to the public by engaging them in a more participative relationship. Unfortunately, the problem with this is consultation fatigue.

The point to hang on to is that officers and councillors are accountable to the public for the core responsibility to ensure community well-being. There probably needs to be a number of mechanisms through which accountability is then exercised. Direct accountability to the public is only one. Council officers are held to account through performance management systems within the organisation for their individual and departmental responsibilities.

Council departments are held to account by inspectorates and central government for national indicators an d targets. Councillors now hold each other to account through the scrutiny function and are in turn held to account by the electorate. All of these mechanisms should complement each other to provide a system of public accountability which builds public trust. It seems that at the moment they do not.

We need to redefine the appropriate location and direction of accountabilities to build an accountability relationship which is proportionate and appropriate. Not least to get some agreement about the strategic accountability levers of central government in order to focus much more clearly on key accountabilities locally.

Dr Jane Martin

Executive director, The Centre for Public Scrutiny

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