Magazine article Public Finance

PAC Must Go Local

Magazine article Public Finance

PAC Must Go Local

Article excerpt

Devolution plans are not a policy initiative, but a fundamental rebalancing of governance. For them to succeed, accountability must be devolved alongside power and this means the highly centralised norm for the institutions of Westminster and Whitehall must adapt.

However, those organisations have proved resistant to change, and the Public Accounts Committee report in May warning about the impact of devolution on Westminster scrutiny reflects this "business as usual" mindset. It finds that "increasingly complex delivery methods", of which devolution is one, are undermining traditional accountability. Lines of accountability run in neat hierarchies, aligned to separate Whitehall departments each with an accounting officer sitting atop, and answerable to parliament for spending. 'Wicked issues' of delivery are rubbing against this simplistic clarity.

The committee cites City Deals as a policy with uncertain accountability for spend, as devolved funding is combined through different departmental streams. The problem with the model of holding separate Whitehall departments to account separately for value of public money spent is that it does not accurately account for money wasted by cost shunting between departments. So, while the Department for Communities and Local Government might balance its books on paper, where is the line of accountability for the extra public pounds spent through the NHS due to social care cuts by councils?

This model is fundamentally unable to cope with crosscutting issues - in other words, reality. And the report recommends making silos stronger by proposing that accounting officers prepare better accountability system statements that are up to date and "fresh".

This misses an opportunity to think creatively about how accountability could work in a more devolved system, where new forms of accountability could track the value of public money closer to where it is spent. …

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