Accountability and #localgov leadership
After a busy few days inside and outside of WLLG Towers we thought it would be a perfect time to share a thought provoking guest post from Jessica Crowe (@CfPScrutiny) of Centre for Public Scrutiny fame. The past few weeks has shown us the importance of both leadership across the public sector and the importance of accountability, so Jessica’s post is both timely and interesting. If you’ve got a subject you’d like to write about you can send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet us about it @welovelocalgov, otherwise get yourself a cuppa and scroll down for more.
Three things last week made me think yet again how we need a better understanding of what accountability means for leaders in local government these days. Firstly I attended an excellent lecture given by Sir Michael Lyons (remember the Lyons report…?) to mark the 45th anniversary of the Institute of Local Government Studies (@INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham. This was followed by the distinguished panel of Baroness Onora O’Neill, Catherine Staite, the new Director of INLOGOV, and Derek Myers (@ChairSolace), Chief Executive of Kensington and Chelsea. Sir Michael’s lecture set out what ought to constitute ‘fit for purpose’ leadership in public services for the future.
The following night, with my nerd hat firmly on, I took part in a roundtable hosted by accountants Grant Thornton to discuss their new research analysing what council accounts and Annual Governance Statements tell us about the state of corporate governance in local government. And in between these two thoughtful events I read a ridiculously simplistic rant in the MJ from a former local government public relations officer, arguing that the bean-counters of the “accountability industry” should back off and just let the professionals get on with delivering services.
The INLOGOV evening came up with some elegant lists of three as maxims for better public service leadership (“do less; do it well; do it together” from Sir Michael; “honesty, competence and reliability” – Onora O’Neill; “aggregate where you can; localise where you should; innovate everywhere” – Derek Myers). In emulation, here are three conclusions drawn from these three experiences: a plea for more understanding of what public accountability is and why it is both helpful to and a special responsibility of leaders in local government.
First: what accountability is – and is not: Robust, effective public accountability emphatically should not require the creation of a bureaucratic burden of process and procedure. It is not achieved simply through regulation and audit; nor through greater transparency and publication of data. All of these things may be part of what the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) calls the ‘web of accountability’, but without a culture of accountability permeating the organisation they are just about compliance and can easily become a burden – real or perceived. In our own ‘rule of three’, CfPS in fact argues for accountability, transparency and involvement together as three necessary and complementary pillars that support representative democracy. If you think about these three concepts it becomes pretty clear that this is not about ‘bean-counting’, but about the way the organisation works, how it engages with the public, service users and colleagues, and how it achieves its aims and objectives.
If you want a precise definition of accountability, this (academic one) is pretty good, and CfPS adopted it in its Accountability Works analysis:
“A relationship between an actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation to explain and justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose questions and pass judgement, and the actor may face consequences.”
In councils this describes an overview and scrutiny committee quite well, but also systems of internal performance management, neighbourhood assembly-type meetings where officers may face a public grilling, and even external inspection and audit processes. But the emphasis on relationships, obligations, judgements and consequences demonstrates that this is all about learning, improving what you do and feeling a sense of public service duty to those who pay public servants’ salaries in return for the services you provide.
As one excellent local government officer put it some years ago, accountability is about really “doing the job you’re paid for”. It’s also a way of providing assurance (to yourself, your managers, local leaders and others) that you are delivering excellent services, helping communities tackle their problems and achieving whatever aims you and your organisation have set yourselves.
Secondly, at last week’s INLOGOV event, Onora O’Neill called for ‘formative accountability’ (learning and improving together) not ‘summative accountability’ (collating and reporting data for someone else’s benefit) – a distinction between different types of assessment developed in the education world. If we think about accountability in this way and as defined above – as something not externally imposed with which you have to comply but something internally owned that informs the way you do your job – it immediately becomes apparent how helpful it can be for leaders. An organisation that understands why and to whom it is accountable and whose staff feel that sense of accountability for doing the best job they possibly can for the people and communities that they serve, is one that it’s going to be much easier to lead.
It also fits with what leaders need in today’s environment, in the era of local self-regulation, post-Localism Act and in the context of having to make difficult budget decisions and service changes. Developing your organisation’s own sense of local accountability, without having to (or being able to) rely on a system of collating performance data to report for the Audit Commission and myriad government departments’ ring-fenced funding streams, will help local leaders to keep their organisations focused on what matters. In fact, when the organisation lacks a sense of its own accountability, that’s when you are more likely to need the rigid processes and procedures and the burden of regulation, to enforce compliance just to get things done.
Some may question whether this is accountability or just what good managers and professionals have always sought to deliver. I would argue that for public service organisations, where accountability is complex, multi-faceted and – crucially – has a public-facing element to citizens and taxpayers, accountability better captures the breadth of the demands for leaders. Good internal performance management is part of the web of accountability, but so is being open to challenge through public scrutiny, being willing to learn from service-users’ complaints, and understanding the requirements of robust audit and regulation where necessary to safeguard both taxpayers’ money and the interests of vulnerable people.
And this is why instilling and promoting a culture of accountability in their authority is a special responsibility of leaders. Grant Thornton’s review of corporate governance in local government replicates their ten years experience of a similar review of governance in the FTSE top 350 companies. The most recent of these, published last week, emphasises the importance of the ‘tone from the top’ – the example set and the behaviours encouraged by those in leadership positions – in promoting good governance throughout the organisation. Similarly, CfPS’s work with local authorities using our Accountability Works for You self-assessment framework has demonstrated the importance of leadership support for the principles of accountability, transparency and involvement if they are to become real for the rest of the organisation.
Without leadership commitment, the rest of the organisation will struggle to see it as important and it will not become part of the culture and ‘the way we do things around here.’ And that will mean the potential benefits of formative accountability, as described earlier, are lost to leaders seeking to drive forward change and improvements in their council.
As one of our Accountability Works for You pilots put it earlier this year:
“Accountability has to be seen as central to the whole approach to transformation and improvement”
Alongside all the other debates about leadership in local government, rethinking how effectively the culture of the organisation supports accountability, transparency and involvement, to and for local people, provides a timely reminder to leaders about where they ought to focus their attention.
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