Whiteman proposes quango accountability reforms

18 Jun 14
The role of Whitehall finance directors could be expanded to help improve transparency and decision-making, CIPFA chief executive Rob Whiteman has suggested.

Giving evidence yesterday to the public administration select committee’s inquiry into accountability in quangos and public bodies, Whiteman reflected on his own experiences running the UK Border Agency, which has been disbanded and its functions subsumed back into the Home Office.

He noted a tension between accountability to ministers for delivery and accountability to Parliament for stewardship of public money.

‘In terms of good governance, the person [currently] running the department is also the accounting officer. I’m not sure about that,’ he told the MPs.

He suggested that a better way forward might be for a chief executive to be appointed directly by ministers and made contractually responsible for delivery, complemented by an chief finance officer who would be accountable for the money.

‘Perhaps you strengthen the role of the CFO in order that their advice on the risks and the costs of options is more transparent and in order that the transparency would drive a better decision,’ he said.

Whiteman went on to suggest that there is currently a lack of clarity about where accountability lies in quangos. He held up the New Zealand model, where chief executives have a performance contract with the government, giving independent advice on finance and risk, as one the UK could usefully study.

Not giving arms-length bodies separate freedom and accountability meant there was little point in establishing them in the first place, he argued.

‘For UK government as a whole, a discussion needs to be had about what is the role of a department of state,’ said Whiteman.

‘If it’s going to do its own delivery, how does it build the capacity to do so… Or if you’re going to put it in an arms-length organisation, how do you set the accountabilities so that… the chief executive can get on and [deliver].’

Local government also offered some possible lessons to Whitehall, Whiteman suggested. He noted that, as a local authority chief executive, he served all members, not just the ruling party and advice to councillors was written on the face of reports and made public.

‘The expectation was I would provide transparent information upon request. I didn’t only work for the administration of the day, I had a duty to serve all councillors.

‘I don’t think local government is perfect, but I think there’s something to learn in our [central government] system where actually working solely under privileged information and only working for the administration of the day means there isn’t as much transparency about options appraisal at policy initiation and delivery initiation.’

On the case of UKBA, Whiteman said it had been right to abolish the quango.

‘It had become overwhelmed by its workload and the story was the agency rather than the work it was conducting,’ he commented.


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