One Man Two Governors: Accountability in the Modern Era

Posted on: March 1st, 2016

One of the checks and balances built into the UK’s unwritten and highly flexible constitution has been the direct accountability of permanent secretaries to Parliament for the value for money of public spending programmes as well as their regularity and propriety.

This device deliberately set up a tension in which a permanent secretary has two masters: his or her minister and, as Accounting Officer (AO), Parliament. Permanent secretaries have over many years had to steer between risking the displeasure of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and appearing obstructive to their minister. In the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby, when asked whose side a civil servant was on “when the chips were down”, their job was “to make sure the chips stayed up”.

This personal accountability requires a permanent secretary to advise against policy proposals which are too expensive, impractical, poor value or even improper. Permanent secretaries also have the duty of requesting a written direction from a minister who insists on an action that has one or more of these fundamental defects. The existence of this duty has in the experience of BGI members provided leverage with ministers to find a solution that avoided the problem, so the value of the accountability mechanism is not simply to be measured by the number of directions issued.

This dual accountability is meant to be potentially uncomfortable for officials in their relations with ministers, who do not always welcome being advised what they cannot do, whether by an AO or the courts. It depends on mutual trust and personal relationships that can weather disagreement. Willingness to speak “truth unto power” may also be affected by fear of the material consequences. In a world where AOs had security of tenure and were perhaps in their last job, taking a stand against a determined minister would have limited career consequences.

However, an important new report by Sir Amyas Morse and the National Audit Office has said that this system is breaking down. The report identifies the main cause of the change as: “The incentives on AOs to prioritise value for money are weak compared with those associated with the day-to-day job of satisfying ministers.“ The report goes on to suggest that AOs lack the confidence to challenge ministers “not least because it is seen as damaging to their career prospects”. It identifies a number of factors affecting the role of AOs: the greater involvement of ministers in executive decisions implementation leading to AOs being held responsible for things they have no direct control over, the greater involvement of ministers in the selection of civil servants, and the influence of special advisers.

The BGI has pointed to some of these concerns in its earlier paper Civil Service Reform – Hidden Dangers. The NAO could have added to their list of unhelpful developments, the greater ability of ministers to have senior officials removed or redeployed (potentially more influential than their role in appointments) and the reluctance of the PAC to investigate when directions are given to AOs who are concerned about value for money or other concerns. The PAC’s own contribution in pressing for, and achieving, direct accountability to parliament of Senior Responsible Officers (SROs) for major projects has also diluted the personal accountability of permanent secretaries for every activity within their departments.

Having helpfully pointed to the factors putting the system at risk, the NAO report perhaps pulls its punches when it comes to remedies, steering clear of contentious territory with ministers. Instead it merely recommends changes in the way objectives are set for permanent secretaries, which might be thought necessary but not sufficient.

The AO role is almost 150 years old and it is unsurprising that it has changed and developed. However, the need for assurance that public spending represents value for money; that public funds are not being spent for personal or political advantage; and that programmes are feasible has, if anything, got stronger. The solution does not lie in nostalgia. Accountability arrangements have to recognise the increased involvement of ministers in implementation, the growth in cross-departmental working and the devolution of delivery to often ad hoc collections of local authorities and other bodies, for example.

In raising this issue the NAO clearly wants to start a debate about accountability. The BGI welcomes that and will want to develop its views as the debate unfolds. The NAO proposes increased transparency. They would like to see much more use made of formal written directions where AOs are concerned about value for money and they would like these made public. That would be an important change, which would move directions from being a deterrent to a normal part of an accountability system. Without that change in perception, requests for directions could continue to appear either hostile or obstructive and raise fears in the minds of AOs about career consequences. Of course, if there continued to be little or no scrutiny by Parliament of any directions, this would weaken the value of any change.

Greater transparency in project design and implementation would also help accountability. The NAO is right to identify as a weakness of current arrangements that they often leave AOs formally accountable for things they are unable to control. Where ministers are actively involved in the detail of policy implementation, the decisions they make on “policy” grounds, especially in mid-implementation, can have profound effects on costs and timescales. In our earlier report, the BGI suggested that the wider application of standard project management techniques, both to large scale projects and policy development, with formal sign off by ministers on project design, combined with rigorous change control mechanisms, could lead to better informed decision making and clearer accountability.

It is, of course, the case that government has for many years not resembled the Victorian model with a permanent secretary sitting atop a – small – silo like department, responsible and accountable for all that is done in its name. Departments are very much larger, so is their scope of business. Delivery, including the design of delivery, is increasingly provided by diverse providers including agencies, quangos, academy schools, and private businesses, charities, local authorities and consortia which may include any or all of those. Surely the most constructive contribution an AO can make to parliamentary scrutiny today is to ensure that a comprehensive accountability framework exists in his or her areas of accountability; that those who are accountable have a proper understanding of their role in ensuring value for money and are held to account for it, both by the Principal Accounting Officer and by Parliament.

Designing and then implementing such frameworks is hard to do. It is also a distraction from the pressing task of keeping the minister happy. Perhaps that is why the NAO reports that only 7 of the main 17 departments has an accountability system statement and only one of those shows any evidence of being used in practice rather than as a box ticking exercise.

The changes to public services introduced in the last 10 years and continuing have been far reaching. They have introduced new players in both the public and private sectors and in the process have disrupted, sometimes deliberately and sometimes incidentally, established working cultures and expectations. Since many of the changes have been introduced nominally to improve value for money, it is disappointing that they seem not to have been accompanied by efforts to measure their impact on that or to ensure clarity about accountability for outcomes.