“Accountability Works!”: ten years on

Posted on 22/10/2020 by Ed Hammond.

In 2010, shortly before the General Election, the Centre for Public Scrutiny (as we then were) published “Accountability Works!” – a document which aimed to provide a comprehensive expression of what accountability and democracy looked like in public services at the turn of a new decade.

We had planned, this year, to do a little more than we have done to reflect on this anniversary and on whether the main tenets of Accountability Works continue to be relevant, ten years on. For obvious reasons, that hasn’t happened – but following on from our renaming and looking ahead to future projects – in particular, a new campaign on local governance in the post-COVID world – we thought the time was right to pause and reflect, albeit briefly, on this important piece of work.

“Accountability Works!” was the first place where we set out our idea of the “web of accountability” (I originally wanted to call this the “nexus of accountability”, but was sadly overruled). The “web” is the network of relationships between a number of scrutineers and stakeholders, each with their unique responsibility to hold to account. It incorporates accountability:

  • Through the ballot box;
  • Through the media;
  • Through the market, and choice;
  • Through complaint and redress for wrongs;
  • Through regulation, inspection and audit;
  • Through management processes;
  • Through scrutiny carried out by lay non-executives and other scrutineers.

Whilst this might appear complex, they are all fundamental components which we in the public sector engage with regularly, often intuitively.  The first of these – accountability through the ballot box – is what we traditionally think of as representative democracy. The remainder are aspects of participative democracy. In our conception of the issue participative democracy has three pillars – accountability, transparency and involvement. The presence of these three elements is critical to making the whole edifice function. So crucial did we consider them that the three words became our strapline, and part of our logo, for half a decade.

It may be that I’m biased, having been the person who wrote “Accountability Works!” in the first place, but this central thesis still seems to hold up today – with one exception, to which I will own up below.

Accountability is, as we said, complex. And this complexity has certainly played out in the past decade. One thing that the document did not really take account of was how dynamic different parts of the web are. So when we wrote, the “regulation, inspection and audit” element was quite significant for local government – we had CAA and the Audit Commission and the superstructure of the Best Value regime beneath it. That’s all now gone. In complaint and redress for wrongs the Ombudsman system for the sector has been reformed – and oversight of the councillor standards regime has substantially reduced.

In a world of insourcing and local government commercialisation, the idea of “accountability through the market” now seems charmingly old-fashioned. Experiences at national level (with Serco’s Test and Trace contract), and the collapse in the rail franchising system, and locally in the social care market make clear just how fragile this form of accountability might be. Government is also planning to make inroads in judicial review – accountability through the courts being another part of the “web”, although not one that we really looked at. (As an aside, we have submitted a response to the call for evidence issued by the Faulks Review on administrative review, which you can find here). 

A weakening of some parts of the web necessarily suggests that others be strengthened. For many, part of the solution lies with community empowerment. It is telling that our conception of accountability, for all of its attempt to step away from traditional assumptions about how governance in the public sector works, fell into the trap of focusing on those with formal and professional positions. We talked about the role of the public, but not much. So how can we remould the principles in “Accountability Works!” to be a bit more person-shaped?

Empowering the public means handing over power without condition. It means rethinking the relationship that local people have with those in traditional leadership roles. It was a concept we explored fully in our 2019 publication “Culture, governance and collaboration”. The idea of a community focus for decision-making is something being actively explored by others in the sector too.  

We need to think of radically new ways to put decision-making power in the hands of local people to make up for the shortcomings of traditional accountability. And we need to think of an accountable, transparent and inclusive governance framework to support those people in exercising this power.



About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.