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Akash Paun is a Fellow of the Institute for Government, and lead author of a new report released today – Accountability at the Top: Supporting effective leadership in Whitehall

Barely a week goes by without new tales of tensions between ministers and civil servants appearing in the press. The pressures of spending cuts, headcount reductions and radical structural reform all contribute to a charged atmosphere. But a more fundamental problem is the weakness of accountability arrangements. As a new Institute for Government report argues, these arrangements are opaque, outdated and avoid clarity about who is responsible for what, to whom and with what consequences.

Some view the lack of clear accountability as a cosy conspiracy that allows ministers and officials to hide behind each other when things go wrong. But in reality, the system suits nobody. Ministers feel that officials get away with poor performance, and senior officials feel they are blamed for things they can’t control, and punished (including by removal from post) on the basis of ministerial whim rather than objective performance assessment. Good performance also goes unrecognised and unrewarded.

This week the creaking universal credit reform programme is back on the agenda as Iain Duncan Smith appears before the Work and Pensions Committee. There has already been a damning report by the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, which tells a sorry story about unclear management structures. The immediate responsibility for the oversight and management of Universal Credit should lie squarely with the Permanent Secretary.

However, more fundamental questions still need to be answered by both ministers and the Civil Service. There is a view that the policy was ill-fated from the start, but that officials placed too much emphasis on pleasing ministers at the expense of their duty to challenge flawed ideas. There is a well-established system by which permanent secretaries can publicly register concerns about the value for money or feasibility of a policy, by requesting a “ministerial direction” to proceed. However, this has not happened once since 2010 – which seems surprising given that a sixth of the government’s major projects have been assessed as unachievable or in doubt.

Also due imminently is the publication of permanent secretaries’ annual performance objectives. The publication of these last year was heralded as an important step in sharpening the accountability of senior leaders. Unfortunately, the government has only managed to agree and sign off the objectives eight months into the (2013/14 financial) year. The objectives appear to be drafted by committee too, with various senior political and administrative leaders hanging their own ‘baubles’ on the tree.

Unsurprisingly, permanent secretaries see these objectives as a joke and define their own priorities.
The overall picture is not flattering. Our report sets out a dozen proposals to improve accountability arrangements and strengthen relationships at the top of government departments. There should be a published statement of the roles and responsibilities of both permanent secretaries and secretaries of state. The former should be held responsible for implementing political priorities. But ministers must give officials the space to challenge poor ideas, to manage their departments, and to devote time and resources to preparing for longer-term policy issues – including those that might arise under a future government.

And civil service leaders must take responsibility for developing a more rigorous system for managing their permanent secretaries, with meaningful objectives published in good time and used as the basis for appraisals, pay and promotion decisions. The names of the highest ranking permanent secretaries could even be published. Government is complex, and there is no silver bullet to the problems we highlight. But if no action is taken to improve the status quo, then relationships will continue to come under strain, and the effectiveness of government will suffer.

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