Peter Hoskin

Transparency is only half of the accountability story

Transparency is only half of the accountability story
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And the word of the day is … accountability. Or at least it's the guiding ideal behind these departmental business plans that the government is releasing. When David Cameron introduces them later he will call it a "new system of democratic accountability". The idea is that, if we know what each department is tasked with achieving, we can praise them should they succeed – or attack them when they fail.

Which is all very heartening. The Tories, in particular, came to power promising to lift the bonnet on the engine of Whitehall – and they are doing just that. But transparency is only one half of the accountability story. The other is the rather more bloody, but no less crucial, business of blame. If there is no formal structure for apportioning blame – for punishing the worst performing departments and chief civil servants (or even incentivising the best) – then what does it matter if a ministry is unfit for purpose? Very little can be done about it.

The Tories are fully aware of this. Last year, they peddled various ideas for making senior civil servants more accountable – such as putting them on fixed-term contracts, or drafting in non-executive directors from the private sector who could sack under-performing permanent secretaries. Some of this has carried over into Cabinet Office's draft structural reform plan.

But the coalition is finding some of the implementation a little more difficult than it foresaw. As the Independent reports this morning, "these positions have proved harder to fill than expected and the date of the announcement of these 'non execs' has been pushed back until later this year." Let's hope that this isn't the government's accountability agenda stalling at the first. Transparency is a wonderful thing – but unless it carries consequences, then it might not be transformative as well.