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Accountability for many public services is a mess

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The end of summer takes local government closer to the publication of the chancellor’s spending review on 25 November.

Unless by some stroke of fate an anti-austerity Corbyn government is in office by then, local authorities would be well advised to plan to cut spending by 5% a year until 2020.

David Cameron has recently stated he would like all schools to become academies. The prime minister said: “I want teachers, not bureaucrats, deciding how best to educate our children.” 

The prime minister is not alone, as the last Labour government showed, in believing that any council involvement in schooling means bureaucratic meddling.

Such an aversion to management is also on display within the NHS, where the original logic of reforms such as the creation of foundation trusts and clinical commissioning groups was intended to reduce the grip of ‘bureaucrats’.

Neighbourhood planning has a similar intent. The rise of the self-governing micro-quango is a phenomenon of the age, a response to public disenchantment

Of course, the public (all of us) have conflicting views about many issues. We may dislike ‘bureaucrats’, but we expect public services to respond quickly and comprehensively to emergencies. Someone has to organise such capacity. 

We demand appeals processes and due process. Social services departments are expected to intervene with 100% accuracy in troubled families. When things go wrong, bureaucrats must be held to account, because to do otherwise would risk undermining the argument for control by professionals and the public.

Accountability for many public services is a mess. For most people, the only way to tackle failure is to go to Parliament. There is no one in authority between an individual micro-quango and the secretary of state. 

MPs are given special hotlines to central departments which the rest of us are not allowed to use. England is so centralised that all answers emanate from Whitehall. London is the county town of England.

George Osborne’s spending review may include further hints about the devolution of powers to city and county regions. Indeed, the chancellor appears to be willing to challenge the tide of centralisation. For accountability’s sake, it is to be hoped he succeeds.    

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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