Friday, 13 August 2010

A question of accountability

There is no doubt that there is just a pinch of politics behind the decision to publish details of what are being referred to as the spending 'excesses' of the Department for Communities and Local Government under the previous administration. There is also little doubt that groups such as the Taxpayers Alliance will be foaming at the mouth as they pick over the details whilst the media will be searching for what can be described as a 'duck island moment' - one item which sits above all overs for sheer folly.

For once I'm with all of them. In my time in local government I knew nothing, but grim austerity. Office downgrades, no awaydays for several years, no Christmas party, no nothing, well something, in 5 years the total sum we received was a £5 lunch paid for from money the a team member had received for taking a student on. I disagree with this approach too. Awaydays can be valuable for morale and for working out operational issues, even a Christmas party improves cohesion and morale. The problem is that when budgets are scrutinised you need to show added value and whilst it is easy and straightforward to say what something cost it is much harder to and infinitely more complex prove just what value it adds.

That said excess is excess. I remember hearing stories from my friends girlfriend who worked for UK Trade and Industry about all expenses paid trips, including a coach to Brighton for their Christmas do and inviting staff from SEEDA along for the ride. The team also underspent it's budget one year so a member of staff was duly dispatched to purchase a load of blackberry's so as to protect next years allocation. There couldn't have been anymore of a contrast with my own experience where we frequently struggled biros so poor quality they dried up after a few days if they were the black ink type or became unbelievably blobby if they were blue.

The reason for the difference was simple. In the local authority we were more accountable - to a local electorate who paid a locally set tax rate and so faced closer scrutiny not just from them, but from politicians eager to rein in costs wherever they could. For a central government department and even more so for the quangos which have proliferated the workings are more opaque and there is no clear link to the individual taxpayer.

I don't believe the issue is one of who the political masters are, after all quangos were a Tory invention, but one of governance. Whilst a commitment to publish expense details will improve transparency and therefore accountability it still does not address some major issues, particularly with quangos as to who runs them, what are they for, who sets their priorities, questions in general which need to be asked.

Ironically transparency overall has been declining. Commercial confidentiality can be invoked to cover a multitude of sins and many people do not know if the council officer they are dealing with is employed by the local authority or a commercial contractor. David Cameron's call for a greater Civil-Society also raises issues, charities after all are far less transparent than local government - although numerous efforts have been carried out to improve reporting and accountability, but with the charge that this was eroding what was distinctive about the sector.

As ever the answers are less than transparent.

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