Sharing responsibility is to pass the buck

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Taking decision making powers without also taking responsibility means that nobody is really responsible at all – as Michael Howard has ably demonstrated.

General Learmont’s report on Prison Security is a surprisingly good read. Its account of escapes from Parkhurst reads like a thriller. Its account of public sector mismanagement read like a comic novel.

But the catalogue of errors it describes has more than entertainment value. It illustrates fundamental issues of what we mean by accountability. Everyone – Prime Ministers, Chief Executives, Pension Governors and Prison Officers, ought to be accountable. But the concept of accountability that we have in Britain’s public sector is destructive, not constructive. It reaches its worst excesses in government, though you can recognise it in bad managers everywhere.

What politicians and civil servants often mean by accountability is a process of supervision which undermines the responsibility which operational managers have for their actions without attaching that responsibility clearly to anyone else. When Derek Lewis and Michael Howard begin arguing in public about who was responsible for the state of British prisons, or who fired the Governor of Parkhurst, it doesn’t really matter who is right and who is wrong. What is truly damning is that it is possible for them to have that argument at all.

When there is ambiguity about who is responsible for an action, or its results, the consequence is that no one is truly accountable. It usually follows, that no one has either the commitment to the decision or the authority to get it right. When it goes wrong it is essential, and usually possible, to find someone else to blame.

This is not just true of the prison service. Have you talked to anyone – anyone at all – who works in health, or education, or in the subsidised arts, who thinks that what is wrong with the system is something for which they rather than someone else, is responsible?

The same problem – the excess of accountability which in the end means no accountability at all – was the central weakness in the management of Britain’s nationalised industries. We set up public corporations as autonomous agencies but, in the legitimate interest of accountability, constantly reviewed their operational and investment plans. The disappointing results led to still more extensive scrutiny and a battery of ultimately inconsistent mechanisms of control. In the end, we scrapped all these mechanisms at privatisation, gave managers autonomy to get on with the job, and allowed them to achieve substantial improvements in the efficiency of their industries.

But now, of course, accountability is creeping back. It seems absurd that water is leaking from pipes in times of drought. Both Tony Blair and Michael Heseltine are anxious that schools should be connected to the information superhighway. So we are anxious to tell Yorkshire Water and BT what to do.

Well – not tell them exactly. Advise them, encourage them, agree the best course of action. The same ambiguity that characterised Michael Howard’s relations with Derek Lewis is there again. And where there is ambiguity about responsibility, there is no real accountability, and where there is neither accountability nor responsibility there is inefficiency and incompetence. Read the Learmont Inquiry if you are in any doubt.

Appropriate accountability is not “why did you do that?”, still less “you should have told me before you did that”. And it is certainly not “it would be helpful if you did this instead of that”, the classic means of imposing a course of action without taking responsibility for it. Constructive accountability gives people freedom to make decisions but holds them fully responsible for the consequences. A traditional public sector ethos does just the opposite.

The central distinction is between making people accountable for their individual actions and making them accountable for the overall result. If you insist on the first kind of accountability, you lose the opportunity to have the second. Every time you look over someone’s shoulder, you transfer to yourself some responsibility for what they do. To pretend otherwise, as Michael Howard did, is to ensure that no one is really responsible for anything at all.

The public sector is slowly learning how to structure freedom with accountability. Privatisation, with five year periodic reviews, helps: and franchising, under which underperforming companies could be fired after five years, would help still more. But we shouldn’t confuse accountability with a hire and fire culture: the essence is serious, occasional review, and review by reference to what people have done, not how they did it.

That means letting go, which politicians find all too difficult. Next Steps casts ministers as owners of agencies, but owners who advise and help, and approve and monitor the business plan. Sensible owners don’t approve the business plan, because if approval is more than an empty formality it undermines the responsibility of those who run the business. And if you ask who is responsible for British monetary policy – Treasury or Bank of England – you will get an elegant equivocation which means that everyone can run for cover if prices rise. The same rules that apply to operations apply to policy management as well.

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