An interesting article by Steve Richards in The Independent yesterday throws a spotlight on a political “theme” that he believes should be much more debated by politicians than it is. That theme is “accountability” and although I do not necessarily agree with some of his conclusions, the points he makes are quite interesting, particularly in the context of the Lib Dems currently looking for a more coherent narrative.
Steve Richards’ point is that reform of government and of the delivery of policies is only successful where the lines of accountability are clear. He points to the independence of the Bank of England as a successful model, whereas the operation of the railways is clearly not. But to me it is more than just a part of grand reforms, it is also a part of the whole debate on how people increasingly feel marginalised by the decision-makers and do not feel as though their views counts regardless of who is in power.
The example that Steve Richards uses of the railways is a good example. There is now a huge number of bodies involved in the running of the trains, with no one person or body having overall responsibility, or any obvious accountability within the different bodies. This is despite the government taking the positive step of moving more of the powers to the democratically accountable Department of Transport than with bodies such as the Strategic Rail Authority. What we still retain though is a huge number of companies and bodies that have mixed up duties and with different responsibilities, and with no one who can make a decision on the overall strategy for the trains who can actually deliver that strategy with any confidence. One of the best examples of this mess from the time I worked in the rail industry is the function of the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) which is both a trade union for the private operators (and so is the public face of train companies, often at times when they are criticsed for fare rises or a rail accident) but is also a statutory body that has legal responsibilities for some industry-wide schemes such as railcards but due to its other role it ends up making purely commercial decisions not necessarily those that benefit the customer. Yet this mess exists in an area of government that is hugely controversial and where there is a widely held view that there is a large degree of failure to create a transport network that meets the public’s needs. Steve Richards also highlights the NHS as an area where this is becoming increasingly the case, it is almost as if the more controversial and the more important the political area, the more difficult the accountability is to understand.
One often cited solution to the current problems with either public or private sector provision of services, is instead to use the voluntary sector, but Steve Richards also points out how the current trend to involve the voluntary sector more goes completely against the need for greater accountability. He is very true on this point, and it is something that has concerned me, but saying that you oppose charities taking on extra roles is not a popular thing to say, as they are invariably seen as a good thing whereas politicians are not.
Where I do disagree with part of his analysis is that the trend for localism actually goes against accountability. How can putting power in the hands of local communities and those who walk the same streets as those they are accountable to, produce less accountability? He is of course right that the turnout in local elections is poor, but surely if a council had more responsibilities and (and this is the key) had the resources both financially and physically to get on and make changes that they want to see, that would in fact increase accountability.
A recent article in Prospect magazine by Jonathan Myerson, a former Labour councillor in the London Borough of Lambeth, also raised a similar issue. His analysis however centered on his inability as a councillor to make any changes in his ward. His argument was that people in his area did not want to be consulted on everything, they did not want to be involved in decision-making, but instead they just wanted him to have the resources to make the changes they had elected him to do. Whilst, this is quite a high handed attitude, and his call for making councillors full-time on higher salaries with an office and staff, may not necessarily be a popular move with voters, there is a point here. Politicians are the people who have been elected with a remit to work for the local community, but if even they don’t think they have the power to change things, then something is clearly wrong with the accountability of the decision-makers.
Accountability is not a new topic of interest to Liberal Democrats. The party has often railed again unaccountable bureaucracies, whether this is regeneration boards set up by local councils or the European Commission. But what we have perhaps not considered is how this should integrate in to a party narrative that promotes accountability whilst not promoting bigger government. A fine line to tread on which Lib Dems are not always consistent and often struggle with when creating new policy.
Perhaps the key to accountability in the short-term is that we should push for accountability that is straightforward and simple, rather than varied and complex. Accountability only truly exists if the majority of the population can understand the chains of command simply, and they can easily find out who is in charge of something and it is clear who actually makes the decision on something. This may not be a grand idea, it may also be dull (as Steve Richards acknowledges) but it is perhaps something that is at the heart of being a liberal and a democrat, and the Lib Dems should look at embracing it as a part of its narrative. It also acknowledges a concern that is important regardless of whether a service provider is in the private or public sectors, and so will be of interest to both the left and right in the party.