I am due tomorrow to give the keynote address to the annual conference of the Centre for Public Scrutiny. Actually, it’s only me calling it ‘keynote’. This is a private joke going back to 1996 when part of my job for the Labour Party was to enforce the rule than no shadow minister should make any spending commitments. It didn’t take long for people to get the message, so the enforcement job soon became nugatory. All except, that is, for a very fastidious, and more than slightly self-important, junior spokesman.
I remember one Friday night having to go back to Millbank at almost midnight because the shadow minister was insisting that I check his speech. No matter that I assured him I trusted his judgment: being such an important figure making such a newsworthy speech, he feared that any gaffe would grab the national headlines and jeopardise the General Election (in truth, he could have run naked through the streets shouting ‘I’m a teapot’ and made not a dent in Labour’s prospects).
So it was that I left my dinner party and found myself standing in a deserted Party HQ as the fax machine started to churn out the very lengthy speech. There was something so ‘Pooterish’ about the wording of the front page that I have kept it to this day:
‘Keynote address to the Gwent Community Safety Conference (morning session)’.
Anyway, back to my big moment tomorrow. I am finding it a bit challenging to get back into speech mode after my annual lecture, so I would be grateful for any advice.
My current thinking is that formal scrutiny and accountability will be subject to a fourfold assault:
1. On grounds of efficiency, deregulation and decentralisation the Coalition Government is committed to dismantling much of the apparatus of target and inspection, see for example the abolition of the Comprehensive Area Assessment.
2. Deep public spending cuts will make many public services feel like battle zones with services and staff fighting for their survival. In such an atmosphere not only will corners be cut, but those who complain may be seen as unrealistic or irrelevant.
3. Devolving power to individual services providers, users and communities and giving them a greater right to run their own services can be seen as an alternative form of responsiveness and empowerment to that offered by the sometimes blunt and bureaucratic methodologies of formal accountability.
4. The opening up of public information, for example the COINS database on public spending will offer more opportunities for ‘DIY’ scrutiny and accountability. There may indeed be an argument that accountability can now be left to the whistle blowing of public spirited or anti-establishment individuals.
All of which leads me to conclude that the champions of scrutiny need to strengthen the links between this concept and two others: evaluation and deliberation. Scrutiny must be seen, on the one hand, to offer a more rounded and in-depth exploration of performance than can emerge from on–line data mining. While, on the other hand, scrutiny needs to be linked to more participative forms of decision making so that it is less about questions like ‘why was this done?’, ‘how did the service perform?’ and ‘who is to blame for failure?’ and more the basis for better decision making about future policy.
Most of all – and regular readers won’t be surprised to hear me say this - we need to get behind the tendency for scrutiny and accountability to reinforce the idea that service outcomes are simply a reflection of the performance of politicians, managers and staff. A more forward looking and participative model of scrutiny enables the focus to move towards asking ‘what do we - the public service provider and the wider community - need to agree to do together to protect and improve service outcomes?’
I am making the speech in 22 hours so if no one gives me helpful comments and I flop I will make sure to share the blame with you, my dear readers.