Monday 1 September 2014

On the accountability of public sector management


I don't make a habit of quoting Labour MPs (they have a depressing tendency to spout nonsense) but this from Simon Danczuk is spot on:

We’re also starting to see a worrying cult of leadership. Highly paid managers are seemingly untouchable and distant from front-line workers. The rise of the unsackable, unaccountable and unapologetic public-sector manager is a trend that will only see services continue to deteriorate. And let’s be clear about what that means. It won’t be just missed targets or a poor Ofsted rating. We’re storing up huge social costs. 

I saw an article the other day, from an organisation called Democratic Audit UK, that argued (in a defence of modern politics) that accountability was greater today:

It is heresy in Britain to suggest that anything in its public life may have got better, but in terms of accountability it most certainly has. It is scarcely too much to say that over the past twenty years there has been a revolution in accountability. From human rights to freedom of information, with much else along the way, governments have been held to account in a way that was previously not the case.

Simon Danczuk's article and the reality of government, the experience of all of us trying to hold social services, police and planners to account for their decisions, is that too many of the decisions government takes are beyond the reach of that accountability. Moreover they are the result of activist government extending its regulatory and management reach ever deeper into society - chasing the shades and demons of modern society and feeding the industry of professional 'experts' that lives on the back of those broken and dysfunctional bits of our society.

We have a semblance of accountability, select committees, scrutiny panels, freedom of information requests and endless teams of inspectors, but with this comes a feeling that what those organisations do makes little difference to teflon-coated managers protected by a library of HR rules. So we aren't surprised - disappointed, even shocked, but not surprised - when David Nicholson, the bloke in part responsible for the scandal of deaths at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital crops up in ever more senior roles. We shrug our shoulders and sigh when we see Lin Homer lurch from one procurement or management crisis to the next. And we cry angrily at the pay out given to Sharon Shoesmith, who led Haringey Social Services at the time of the 'Baby P' death.

I could go on with this and I know you can add dozens - maybe hundreds -of names to the list of people who simply weren't accountable for the actions of the organisations they led. I'm not arguing here for lynchings, heads on poles or even summary dismissal but for a sense of duty and responsibility and for the idea that failure shouldn't, as if in some dark version of Dilbert, be rewarded with promotion. And for the idea that the people we elect to represent us - to make decisions on our behalf - should be able to do so and, so they can, for the activities of police, social services, courts and procurements to be open and transparent to those people.

There's a dangerous view out there among professional public sector 'leaders' that we've moved to some sort of 'post-democracy', to a world where what they are doing is too detailed, technical, specialised and private for elected politicians at any level to merit any say over those decisions. Much of the promotion of this 'post-democracy' comes from the social democratic left, from the inheritors of the Fabian mantle - they claim that far from promoting an unaccountable technocratic governance they are seeing how power has shifted to 'business'. Except they dismiss liberal, local and participatory solutions as 'populism' preferring instead to fall back on the belief in their own inherent rightness and fitness to rule.

To return to Simon Danczuk, he illustrates this problem perfectly:

Last week I received a text message from a current Labour MP saying she was disappointed by my views on this issue. I was only elected in 2010 and already I’ve found that politicians are sometimes discouraged from exploring and investigating complex issues because they’re expected to stay tethered to a dominant ideology and not stray far from the stock replies to difficult questions. This does nothing to strengthen democracy. It weakens it, and creates cynicism. The public want to see matters like this discussed and they want politicians to come up with answers, not just endless hand-wringing. 

Yet when we do what Simon suggests, too often we're told either that it's terribly complicated and involved and not quite what we're saying or worse still (and as a Conservative this is more likely) accused of racism, sexism, class prejudice or some other sort of discriminatory practice. There are a few brave souls out there (I'm not sure I qualify here, for what it's worth) but perhaps too few to crack open the edifice of modern government and shine some light into it's interior - to bring a little more accountability.


1 comment:

Junican said...

Have you heard of 'The Iron Triangle'?

An article about it: