Wednesday, 5 December 2018

New rules

The Institute for Government has a package of recommendations to improve accountability in modern goverment. They say "the conventions that shape the relationship between officials and ministers have evolved in a way that undermines accountability. They promote a tradition of secrecy, which results in a lack of clarity about the responsibilities of senior officials and ministers. These conventions also confine responsibilities to departmental silos, which denies reality."

The report's been endorsed by the Transport Select Committee, in the light of their criticism of Christopher Grayling for not getting a grip of the rail timetable shambles. Here's the Institute's number 1 change proposal.

1. Holding ministers to account for the feasibility of their projects

A pervasive culture of secrecy shields both ministers and senior civil servants from meaningful scrutiny when major projects underperform or fail. Stronger accountability is needed to counterbalance the ambiguity and unavoidable uncertainty of decision making. It is not enough to identify who is responsible for the decision once failure becomes apparent: we need proactive methods which offer assurance that the responsible individuals have properly considered the risks associated with major projects before they begin

To achieve this we propose that permanent secretaries, in their role as departmental accounting officers, should publish more details on the feasibility, potential risks and mitigation strategies in place for their department’s major projects after they have been agreed. This should be subject to external validation and provide the basis for future scrutiny of the project. Parliamentary select committees should recall ministers who have subsequently left post to answer questions about the decisions made during the inception of a project, especially where subsequent underperformance or failures have resulted in harm to the public.

These proposals would provide more clarity about the basis on which decisions were made. This would help to ensure that relevant issues are raised with ministers before a project starts. Moreover, it would provide Parliament with material to scrutinise these projects as they are implemented.

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