Book News: January 27th, 2009

This evaluation of the impact of policy changes on accountability and public confidence takes account of the 20-plus policies that followed the 1998 and 2001 white papers. It assesses the cumulative impacts of the individual policies over the 1998-2007 period and identifies the initiatives that have been key enablers of desired change.

Local authority officers perceive that their council has been becoming increasingly accountable to the public, although for many authorities the focus is on service users rather than citizens. There are very high levels of engagement with a range of public bodies and the voluntary and community sector but the extent to which their views are taken into account in the decision-making process is unclear. There are lower levels of engagement with the private sector.

The improvement in accountability caused by Comprehensive Performance Assessment has been towards central government, not the local community. There is a mixed picture on the effectiveness of scrutiny in holding the executive to account.

There is a strong perception that partnership working compromises local accountability. This is demonstrated through evidence of confusion ‘on the ground’ regarding accountability roles and relationships when different governance arrangements may apply across public bodies.

While councils have become better at ‘giving an account’ of their actions, the public show no greater capacity to hold councils to account. While increased openness makes it more likely that failures will be uncovered, in a media saturated and hostile political environment, this can also invite compromise and evasion, giving further grounds for mistrust.

While the public do not appear to be especially trustful of local government, there is no clear evidence for a major crisis of trust, across the public as a whole. The Government’s Citizenship Surveys have shown a steady increase in the level of public trust in local government, from 52 per cent in 2001 to 60 per cent by 2007. Local councils are the only public institution to register such a consistent increase. There appears to be more trust in local government than in some other institutions, notably central government and ‘politicians’.

Accountability and public confidence is available from DCLG.