UK government seeks international best practice on civil service accountability

By on 10/03/2022 | Updated on 10/03/2022
A magnifying glass being held against a globe of the world.
Photo by Antoni Shkraba from Pexels

The UK government has begun a review into the best governance and accountability models for the civil service, with the aim to identify examples from around the world that could provide more joined up and strengthened decision-making.

In an update provided to a parliamentary committee, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay announced that the government was “finalising the scope and approach” of reviews into civil service governance and models of accountability.

Read more: UK civil service lacks science skills, admits cabinet secretary

The reviews were first pledged in a Declaration on Government Reform, published in June 2021. The declaration, co-signed by prime minister Boris Johnson and cabinet secretary Simon Case, set out a series of proposals to improve the operation of the UK government, including improved accountability for delivery of services. The declaration pledged to “bring greater clarity to the roles, responsibilities and accountability of ministers and senior officials when taking decisions”, as well as “creating an environment that supports open, collaborative policy-making and well-judged risk-taking, with the focus on delivery”.

To help achieve this, the government said it would “complete a review of models of accountability for decisions, drawing on international best practice and experiences during the pandemic and taking account of the role and design of ministerial directions” in 2021, as well as a review of civil service governance, including consideration of the appropriate roles for senior officials, non-executive directors and ministers.

Taking forward into the next phase

In an update published this week, Barclay said that the government was “finalising the scope and approach to the reviews with ministers and expects to take this forward into the next phase from the spring”.

He added: “The reviews will aim to improve accountability and governance processes in the civil service, where needed, to strengthen decision-making so that decisions are taken effectively and aligned with delivering for the public. The reviews will seek to learn from other countries, organisations outside the civil service, as well as from recent experiences in government.”

The examination of international governance examples comes after former UK cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell backed a call to publish civil service policy advice. The proposal has been put forward by the former top official in the UK education department, Jonathan Slater, who highlighted that other countries already publish policy advice, including New Zealand – though unlike the practice there, he’d like to see it released before ministerial decisions are made.

O’Donnell backed Slater’s proposal in a session at King’s College London earlier this week. “It really does make sense to do this. And I think that way, we prevent disasters: prevention is better than cure,” he said. “We need to be held accountable for those option appraisals, and the way you do that is make them transparent.”

Read more: Former UK cabinet secretary backs call to publish civil service policy advice

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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