The Big Society - Public Administration Committee Contents

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."[263]

145. One of the challenges of localism is the concept of equity—treating people fairly—which 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"[264] 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.[265]

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.[266] 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 whatever—with a backstop of people as regulators.[267]

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."[268] 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.[269] The Ombudsman raised serious concerns about the compatibility of the Government's intended use of an Ombudsman with her statutory role:

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.[270]

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".[271]

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".[272] 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 is sufficient".[273] 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".[274]

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 practice.

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.[275]

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.[276]

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".[277] 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.[278]

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"[279] 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.[280

157. While the Minister for Civil Society, Mr Hurd, spoke of each individual programme having "its own specific objective and measures of success attached"[281] 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"[282] and that "a lot of the social capital that exists is not visible and not measurable". [283]

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 against—what went before.[284

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.[285]

159. Ministers 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

264   Ev w291 Back

265   Ev w188 Back

266   Ev w226 Back

267   Q 128 Back

268   HM Government, Open Public Services White Paper, Cm 8145, July 2011, p22-23 Back

269   Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Public Administration Select Committee on 29 November 2011, HC (2010-2012) 1626-i, Q 87 Back

270   Ibid. Q 88 Back

271   Q 594 Back

272   Q 589 [Greg Clark] Back

273   Q 593 Back

274   Q 590 Back

275   Q 23 Back

276   Ev w5 Back

277   Q 62 Back

278   Q 62 Back

279   Q 155 Back

280   "The irredeemable anecdotalism of the Big Society" Matthew Taylor's blog 7 April 2011 Back

281   Q 553  Back

282   Q 524 Back

283   Q 554 [Francis Maude] Back

284   Q 50 Back

285   Q 50 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 14 December 2011