PwC and ippr report says real and visible decentralisation of power is key to ending our ‘blame the Minister’ culture

Published at 16:17 PM on 22 October 2009

When things go wrong with public service delivery, the public still tends to hold the government in Westminster accountable, a new report by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and ippr concludes. But Ministers should not be put off the idea of decentralising power. The report – based on a poll of more than two and half thousand members of the public – shows that if real power is transferred to highly visible and accountable bodies, like the Scottish government or the Mayor of London, the public do understand who is responsible.

At a time when all the main parties are talking about greater decentralisation of power, there remains a fear at Westminster that once national politicians have given power away they will still be blamed if things go wrong at a local level. The survey shows that this is a problem in our political culture: for while Westminster is held accountable for public service delivery failure, it is not given credit for successes. The research report – ‘Who’s accountable? The challenge of giving power away in a centralised political culture’ - highlights the impact of several factors on public perceptions of accountability across a range of service areas such as health, education, transport and crime.

Dame Julie Mellor, partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, commented:

“All parties appear to support greater localism, but given the tendency to hold ministers accountable for all aspects of public service performance, it can be difficult for government to ‘let go’ in our centralised political culture.

“This research shows that it is possible to give power away from the centre and transfer accountability to other bodies if certain criteria are met. In particular it shows that it is possible to shift perceptions of accountability if de-centralisation is well publicised and if real powers are transferred to highly visible and accountable bodies.”

Guy Lodge, Associate Director, ippr says:

“This research gives some clear pointers as to how Ministers can pursue the goal of decentralisation of power without fearing that when anything goes wrong they will be held accountable.

“Pursuing this agenda will require some nerve because it takes time for lines of accountability to become clear in the public’s mind. That said, the experience of devolution in Scotland the Mayor of London, show that these issues can be overcome.”

Key survey findings:

· The public ‘default’ is to blame Westminster for public service failure, especially where the failure is seen to be country-wide. Given a total of ten options1 for who is responsible, the majority of respondents chose the government in Westminster as the body most responsible if health waiting lists were to get longer across England, if the police became less effective across England and if exam results across England were to get worse (48%, 45% and 36% respectively).

· Devolution to an elected body needs to be wholesale and well publicised if perceptions of responsibility are to shift away from Westminster. In Scotland, where the Scottish Government’s powers are clearly defined, communicated and adhered to, the devolved assembly tends to be held to account rather than the government in Westminster. For example, 7% of Scottish adults would hold the government in Westminster accountable if waiting lists got longer, while over a third (37%) of respondents given ten options would look to the Scottish government to take responsibility.

· Where the Mayor of London’s role is clearly understood, as in public transport, the public holds the Mayor accountable rather than the government in Westminster. This does not apply to crime, where the distribution of responsibility is less clear. If public transport got worse in London, 25% of Londoners would hold the Mayor responsible when given a list of ten possibilities to apportion blame. If policing were to get less effective, only 7% of Londoners would look to the Mayor, while 24% would hold the government in Westminster accountable.

· Giving power away to quangos can work, but the independence is fragile and any government involvement moves accountability back to the government in Westminster. While a majority of survey respondents (56%) believe that an independent organisation should be held responsible if something goes wrong, a larger majority (66%) feel that, because government has a role in setting the remit and resource for such organisations, they can never really be independent.

· Private providers are held responsible when people interact with them day-to-day (as in public transport). For example, given ten options on where to place responsibility, more survey respondents in England (48%) said they would hold transport companies most responsible if public transport got worse across the country compared to 31% for government in Westminster. At a local level, half of the respondents in England said they would hold transport companies most responsible in their city or town whereas only 16% would hold the government in Westminster most responsible.

ENDS


Notes to Editors:

References 1. Core options included: Government in Westminster; Scottish Government/Welsh; MPs in your area; local councils in your area; staff; providers e.g. health trusts, schools, etc.; Mayor of London; managers in providers. • Julie Mellor (PwC) and XX (ippr) are available for interviews – please contact Katherine Howbrook on 020 7212 2711 or at [email protected] • For copies of ‘Who’s accountable? The challenge of giving power away in a centralised political culture’ please contact Katherine Howbrook on 020 7212 2711 or at [email protected] • The research was commissioned by PwC and ippr and was carried out by Brand Democracy, an independent research consultancy. The poll was conducted online with a sample of 1550 members of the GB public, alongside ‘booster samples’ of 505 adults in Scotland, and 654 adults in Greater London. All samples are representative of the populations from which they were drawn in terms of age, gender, social economic grade and region. • This poll represents the first stage of research, and the findings will be tested using a series of in-depth deliberative workshops across the country to understand why and how the public ascribe blame in different situations, and what could better ensure that public perceptions line up with formal structures.


For more information contact:

Katherine Howbrook
Financial Services, PR Manager, PwC 
Tel:020 7212 2711 
Mobile:07515 119 096 
 

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