7 Accountability, equity, representation
and management |
144. The Government's commitment to opening up public
services raises pressing questions about lines of accountability
and equity. Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Head of the Civil Service and
Cabinet Secretary has described addressing these issues as "absolutely
crucial", stating "we are doing some very new things
here; payment by results for a lot of contracts will create some
issues about precisely where the accountabilities lie. I think
that is something we need to sort out."
145. One of the challenges of localism is the concept
of equitytreating people fairlywhich is a long-standing
one in British law. People may accept differences between local
authority services because they have voted for their local authority,
although even those differences are being challenged. Differences
within a local authority area, due to a multiplicity of providers,
is a different matter, requiring justification on ethical, as
well as legal, grounds.
146. The role of local authorities as a mechanism
of accountability for contracted services, especially when they
are not the contractor, also appears unclear. The trade union
UNITE spoke of a "democratic deficit in the push to mutuals
and social enterprises in the delivery of public services"
Instead, Ministers have been urged to capitalise on the potential
of local councillors as "crucial players in making the Big
Society happen", and enablers of the Big Society due to their
local knowledge and experience of working with local voluntary
and community groups.
147. Whether in local or national government, it
is essential that accountability mechanisms are clear, and the
public know whom to contact about unsatisfactory services: for
example, Volunteering England told us that community and voluntary
groups that were concerned that they might be held accountable
for levels of service provision if involved in the delivery.
For this reason, Polly Toynbee argued that full responsibility
could not be devolved from central government:
Sometimes the man in Whitehall does know best. Sometimes
awful things happen out there and the man in Whitehall has to
be there to put it right, and to step in and say, "This is
a disaster"whether it is the care quality standards
at Stafford hospital, or whateverwith a backstop of people
148. The Open Public Services White Paper contained
reference to a proposed new role for the Ombudsmen of "power
of redress [
] to investigate complaints, promote local resolution,
and, if necessary, specify remedial action."
This was, we were informed by the Parliamentary and Health Service
Ombudsman, inserted into the document without substantive prior
discussion with her office and conversations are still ongoing
as to how this will work in practice.
The Ombudsman raised serious concerns about the compatibility
of the Government's intended use of an Ombudsman with her statutory
What the Government seems to be saying in relation
to the Open Public Services White Paper is that their ambition
is for the Ombudsman to be more accessible, more visible, and
have more resources and new powers to enable them to have a significant
impact in supporting people's ability to exercise choice. I think
that means there is a danger that the long-established independence
and political impartiality of the Ombudsman will be compromised
by ill-informed, poorly thought-out proposals. If the Government
wants an advocate for its choice agenda, it should create an advocate
for its choice agenda.
I think there is a real concern here [...] if you
want an advocate, you do not want an ombudsman. I think in here
is something around Government seeing ombudsmen as champions of
their policy; and I think this is Parliament's ombudsman, not
the Government's ombudsman.
149. Mr Maude argued that opening up public services
to new providers would increase accountability, because if the
contractor, from whatever sector they were from, did not meet
the terms of the contract, the service could be brought in-house
or contracted out to a different provider. This would be, he said,
"more accountable than in a conventional, line-managed bureaucracy".
150. Mr Clark insisted that the relevant departmental
accounting officer would remain "responsible for making sure
the systems are in place in devolved organisations to be able
to account properly and rigorously for public money".
The Minister also stressed that no matter whether public services
are delivered by the public sector, a charity or a private company,
it is "absolutely clear" that the local authority remained
"responsible for ensuring that the quality of service
He believed that there was "no greater intrinsic risk in
dealing with voluntary organisations compared with the mistakes
that are made in every council over time".
151. The Minister
must set out clear lines of accountability for the provision of
public services under its new arrangements together with a clear
mechanism for members of the public to raise concerns about services.
To fail to do so could be fatal to the chances of success for
the Big Society project.
152. The principle
of accountability to Parliament for the expenditure of public
money by a department's accounting officer is key to the arrangements
for fiscal control exercised by Parliament. The accounting structure
for devolved public services will be necessarily complex. We ask
the Government in its response to outline how this will work in
153. The role
of Parliament's Ombudsman is primarily a matter for Parliament,
and is not an instrument for particular government policies. We
share the Ombudsman's concern that it is not the role of her office
to be an advocate for the Government's choice agenda.
154. The term community is often flexibly used. Concerns
were expressed over whether it was used too flexibly: do all residents
of a particular street or village have the same interests, and
regard themselves as part of one community? Polly Toynbee said
I am making a point about communities not being one
thing. There will be arguments and disputes all the time between
people who want to do this and people who want to do that, and
the idea that giving power to community from on high to anybody
who happens to call themselves community in any one area necessarily
generates community spirit is quite a dangerous thought.
UNISON warned that:
it cannot be assumed that community organisations
will always adequately represent all sections of society. The
voices of many vulnerable service users can be drowned out by
those of the more articulate, confident, and better organised.
And while some community groups may be from the local community,
they do not necessarily represent it. A small business, for example,
might put forward strong opinions, but they may be speaking for
nobody except themselves.
155. Danny Kruger suggested that the original meaning
of Edmund Burke's 'little platoons' was about "social class,
not to the village: he was talking about a nongeographical
area of interest".
For Mr Kruger, this was at the heart of the matter:
Although we do not want people to be identifying
with their social class any more, the idea of identifying with
interests beyond one's geographic community is more valid than
ever, so I think within the age of globalisation we need little
platoons more than ever.
156. Matthew Taylor warned that not knowing how to
"have no way to define whether or not [the Big Society] is
being achieved" is "an abrogation of accountability"
He further advised ministers that:
your project is widely perceived as being vague and
your assertions based on nothing but anecdote, so whenever you
are asked to talk about, write about or host a discussion about
the Big Society try at all costs to be concrete,
specific and evidence based.
157. While the Minister for Civil Society, Mr Hurd,
spoke of each individual programme having "its own specific
objective and measures of success attached"
Mr Maude accepted that there was no simple way to measure the
success of the Big Society policy agenda, as "you can illustrate
it with anecdotes more easily than by rigid measurements"
and that "a lot of the social capital that exists is not
visible and not measurable". 
158. Shaun Bailey proposed a means to identify whether
the work of the Government to enable the Big Society had been
successful. He argued that the change in the provision of public
services should be measurable:
Is it better, is there more of it, are communities
more involved in it? That part will be easier to measure, and
we will have something to measure it againstwhat went before.
However, Mr Bailey also warned that it was more difficult
to measure 'happiness', 'fulfilment' and 'involvement'. Instead:
If we are going to do anything in changing our mindsets
we may have to go for a slightly murkier view of what success
is, because some of what a community needs and an individual needs
cannot be fitted in a box and then ticked alongside.
have not set out clearly what success means for the Big Society
project, nor produced metrics for success. In the absence of such
statements an impression of policies made solely on the basis
of anecdotes or single examples has developed. However, the Government
has committed to regular Departmental reporting on progress towards
the aims of the White Paper on Open Public Services, starting
in April 2012. We recommend that the Government publish a clear
statement, with practical examples, of what the Big Society project
is intended to achieve and then develop the capacity to collect
standard data on public service provision through the Big Society
project, with a view to releasing it in open, accessible and meaningful
formats, to allow the public to assess and judge success.
263 Oral evidence taken before the Public Accounts
Committee on 19 January 2011, HC (2010-2011) 740-i, Q72 Back
Ev w291 Back
Ev w188 Back
Ev w226 Back
Q 128 Back
HM Government, Open Public Services White Paper, Cm 8145,
July 2011, p22-23 Back
Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Public
Administration Select Committee on 29 November 2011, HC (2010-2012)
1626-i, Q 87 Back
Ibid. Q 88 Back
Q 594 Back
Q 589 [Greg Clark] Back
Q 593 Back
Q 590 Back
Q 23 Back
Ev w5 Back
Q 62 Back
Q 62 Back
Q 155 Back
"The irredeemable anecdotalism of the Big Society" Matthew
Taylor's blog 7 April 2011 Back
Q 553 Back
Q 524 Back
Q 554 [Francis Maude] Back
Q 50 Back
Q 50 Back