Devolution: the accountability question

3 Jul 15

As the government prepares to devolve more powers to local areas, leaders and decision-makers in public services must ensure that accountability is as local as the delivery

In a poignant tribute to Charles Kennedy, Alastair Campbell described him as having the ability to ‘speak fluent human’. If you asked members of the public if they could put a name to politicians they recognise, you could be sure that Boris Johnson, John Prescott, Nigel Farage and Nicola Sturgeon would be on the list. All are generally very good at speaking, and being, fairly human – for politicians anyway.

Speaking human and building systems that recognise we are human has, in my view, always been important. Navigating public services can be a challenge: knowing how to access support, who to complain to when things don’t go well and how to get involved in those issues that matter to you and your family or community can test the most determined and resilient.

Generally, the tragedies that we all remember have poor information sharing, voices not being listened too and systems not joining up at their core.

Public services are transforming and this is set to continue, as it should. This change is crucial, the current way of operating is no longer affordable and outcomes will not be improved by organisations operating in silos. More transformation and change presents challenges to upholding our principles of accountability, transparency and involvement, critically at a time when they have never been more important.

In order to work well, we believe all public services should operate in a way where you can, fairly easily, establish who is accountable for what.

Accountability and transparency of decision-making should also be as local to the delivery as possible; those that understand their communities are often best placed to recognise what is needed. It should also recognise that the democratic mandate that comes from being elected and other important governance roles such as school governors, lay members or tenant representatives gives legitimacy and accountability.

In a perfect world, the armchair auditors of this world would be challenging and holding us all to account for delivering our strategies and providing value for money.

As much as they do have a role, it is the responsibility of leaders and decision-makers in organisations or partnerships to build effective governance systems and cultures that recognises the value of scrutiny and involvement in good decision-making. Involving people and their elected representatives, contributes to better decisions, greater understanding of the need for change and smoother implementation.

To ensure that scrutiny, involvement and governance are embedded as part of any future ways of working, it needs to happen in a way that:

• Gives government the assurance it needs - whatever the devolution model.

• Gives local areas the freedom to devise governance models that match the outcomes they are trying to achieve and their communities’ needs and characteristics.

• Is transparent enough for local people to be able to engage and understand who is involved.

Scrutiny is an essential part of good governance and decision-making for all public organisations and applies to all places. The challenge is to deliver scrutiny in a way that is dynamic, cost effective and seen as essential to decision-makers. There is work to do on all sides. We are up for contributing to this challenge – whilst also remembering to keep speaking fluent human.

Jacqui McKinlay is the executive director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny. She will be speaking at the CIPFA conference session, "Public trust and accountability, getting governance right", from 11.15 from 9 July.

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