Enhancing accountability

Robert Watt speaking Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, sets out how a framework for the Civil Service could open up more freedom to innovate.

One of the areas of critical importance to the overall ambition of our reform efforts is accountability and by extension performance measurement.

At its simplest, accountability is the holding of people responsible for their performance. Accountability is not necessarily a confrontational process between Parliament and ministers and/or their officials. Clearly in cases of significant failure, it needs to be that. But more often than not, when used effectively, it is a process by which lessons are learnt and best practice determined. Far more constructive dialogue of this kind takes place in Oireachtas committees than is recognised.

In my role as an Accounting Officer and in light of my responsibilities as a Secretary-General under the Public Service Management Act (PSMA), I am keenly aware of the significant benefits of accountability in, for example: monitoring and overseeing administrative conduct; helping to sustain trust in the Civil Service as impartial and independent; and minimising the risk of corruption and the abuse of power.

Currently, there are a broad range of formal accountabilities under which civil servants operate. These encompass, for example, appearances before Oireachtas committees, preparation of departmental strategy statements and progress reports, the framework of assignments established under the PSMA, freedom of information requests, review of administrative actions by the Ombudsman or indeed the courts.

However, the bedrock of effective accountability is ensuring that there is clarity about who is accountable to whom and for what. I believe that such clarity provides a vital platform for securing more effective institutional arrangements within and between the administrative and political systems and the creation of a high-performing Civil Service which is strongly equipped to meet current and future challenges as well as enhancing the learning capacity of public bodies.

By shining a light on accountability arrangements, we can ensure that the Civil Service is empowered to be more effective and perform better.

I believe that strengthening accountability has the potential to drive significant improvements in how we do things in the Civil Service, and the way we do them. The Programme for Government commitments on strengthening Civil Service accountability afford us an opportunity to assess in an informed and constructive way how such accountability can best be achieved.

In doing so, it is essential to avoid what has been characterised as a potential dysfunction of public accountability if it becomes focused on finding faults and failures and is seen to be associated with blame games and scapegoating for those who are perceived as culpable.

We require, in the first instance, a reasoned and informed debate on any departure from longstanding conventions of ministerial accountability that recognise the centrality of political accountability to our democratic system but which recognise also the practical reality that functions, particularly operational functions, cannot be conducted personally by the Minister of the day.

The obligation to explain behaviour and performance (either good or bad) but particularly where serious failures have occurred is, of course, central to the concept of public accountability. And of course the potential for consequences and sanction (even possible reward?) is also inherent to effective accountability systems.

But, if the balance isn’t right a focus on holding officials to account for every failure, including those beyond their control, runs the risk of undermining innovation in public administration. We cannot tolerate a situation whereby people are afraid to tackle issues afresh for fear of being unfairly criticised for hiccups and failures along the way.

In strengthening accountability, we need to adhere to certain principles. These may include that:

◾ The person accountable should know what he or she is accountable for, and to whom they are accountable.

◾ These accountabilities would need to be documented and publicly available;

◾ The person accountable should have sufficient control over the outcomes for which he or she is held responsible; and

◾ There should be enough information available to judge whether responsibilities have been performed.

That performance should be measures not just against optimal outcomes but against the limitations of not making changes in the first instance.

This is not an easy task – and there is no silver bullet. The degree of complexity is reflected in the existing constitutional and legislative framework of ministerial responsibility.

The managerial accountability of the Civil Service and individual civil servants flows from ministers’ constitutional and legal responsibility for their department, for which they are responsible to Parliament. This is the framework for strengthening accountability not an obstacle to reform. Under our system, powers vested in the Minister may be exercised by officials at appropriate levels without any express act of delegation. It is how these powers are exercised, and the manner in which they are used, that needs clarity.

In line with the Programme for Government commitments, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has undertaken a review of this existing accountability framework for ministers and civil servants, and a consultation paper based on the outcome of that review is currently being finalised for consideration by government. This work has examined the steps undertaken in countries such as the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to strengthen individual accountability of civil servants. The success or otherwise of their efforts remains a subject for debate among academic and practitioners.

However, these experiences contain many lessons from which we can learn. There are many options potentially available in seeking to strengthen accountability and performance.

Options requiring balanced and informed examination in my view include, for example:

◾ reforming the legislative framework to provide greater clarity and certainty as to the roles and responsibilities of ministers and civil servants, including accountability to the Oireachtas;

◾ establishing a governing entity for the Civil Service;

◾ securing more effective accountability of senior management, including exploring the publication of specific objectives and setting out clearly who is personally accountable for them;

◾ reviewing the alignment of HR practices to the requirements of a modernised Civil Service;

◾ taking steps to enhance accountability through the reaffirmation and reinforcement of the ethos and values of the Civil Service; and

◾ developing a robust governance framework for government departments as well as structures to underpin effective governance between government departments in responding to significant cross-cutting issues.

The purpose of this paper will not be to present fully formed answers but to provoke debate amongst policy-makers and the public. And I would like to think that the debate would be underpinned by equal recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of the current system.

This is an excerpt from a speech by Robert Watt at the IPA Perspectives on Public Sector Reform conference on

1 November 2013.

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