Identifying the Cause of the Child Support Agency's Problems
by G Bates, D Hutchinson, T Robertson, A Wadsworth, R Watson
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Accountability Issues

Accountability has always been a major issue in public services for a number of reasons. Obviously it is important in any organisation to know who is responsible for what, but when politics is involved it becomes even more important. The government is spending public money and so there is large amounts of media attention and when things go wrong the government has to be seen taking action and punishing those who are accountable. The problem is the complex and paradoxical nature of accountability. "Too much calling to account may confuse the issue of who is responsible and may impede the ability of management of an organisation to run the services for which they are to be held accountable" (www.childsupportanalysis.co.uk.). The hierarchy of public sector organisations simply serves to confuse matters further as there are two possible groups to be held accountable, ministers and civil servants.

The incongruity between the formal doctrine of accountability and practical reality

One of the main issues is the difference between the theory and the reality. The government has traditionally used a doctrine that clearly outlines the responsibilities of ministers and executives to determine who is to be held accountable. "Ministers are accountable to the public, via parliament, for their own decisions and for the work of the departments; civil servants are accountable internally - and only internally - to their political chiefs." (Barberis, 1998: 451)

This lays down the rules in black and white, clearly stating that ministers are to bear all of the responsibility and cannot "blame their civil servants when things go wrong," (Barberis, 1998: 451). To give this black and white definition, the doctrine relies heavily on two main principles; that ministers delegate responsibility to the civil servants and that they are involved in the operations of their department. An apparently simple solution to a potentially complex issue, but this is not the case. The make up of government departments has changed over the years with departments expanding drastically and also becoming multifunctional in their duties. This has meant that ministers are increasingly detached from the day-to-day running of their departments and agencies. Due to these changes, many now consider the doctrine to be weak and impractical, yet it is still used. Even despite the creation of Next Step Agencies aiming to relieve the pressure on ministers by following a policy of 'controlled delegation' and giving more responsibility to the executives, the doctrine is still followed.

Therefore it is easy to see how the relatively simple theory of accountability has become complicated and completely detached from the reality of the situation. The case of the CSA brought to light many of the problems surrounding accountability because of the difficulties it had during its first years.

"Seven years after its establishment the CSA had been the subject of a record number of inquiries, audits and reports. One chief executive, though notably no minister, had resigned. Masses of complaints had been, and continue to be, received. The chair of the Public Accounts Committee described the affair as an object lesson in how not to set up an agency." (Harlow, 1999: 154)

With problems such as the CSA had, the doctrine states that it is the minister's responsibility and that s/he is accountable for the problems in his/her department. So why was it that after all these problems the only resignation had come from a Chief Executive? Ros Hepplewhite far from being only accountable internally to her minister, as doctrine prescribes was in fact subject to public scrutiny. It was she that spoke to the media about the problems involved with her agency [1] and after mounting pressure resigned in September 1994. This is a clear demonstration of how it has become impractical for the doctrine's principles to be relied on and used: "If you have a doctrine which says everything is the responsibility of the minister, which all common sense people know to be false, then you're really saying that the minister is in a wonderful position to say that nothing is his responsibility." (Barberis, 1998: 457)

It would seem the easiest way to solve this problem is to make a distinction between the responsibilities of the ministers and those of the executives. This has largely been the case in the reality of the situation as we have seen from the saga of the CSA. "It was perhaps inevitable that a distinction would develop between 'policy', for which ministers could be held to responsibility, and 'operational matters', for which civil servants seemed properly responsible." (Harlow, 1999:151). However, problems are encountered because of the difficulties in drawing such a line of distinction.

Policy and Provider inter-relationship

The obvious line of distinction to draw is that between policy and operations as these are the areas that each party has most involvement but even this is difficult. The two are so intertwined that it is not a simple task to identify which area has been the cause of failure. After all, operations cannot succeed without the backing of sound policy, but good policy can be implemented badly.

One approach to blaming policy for the failures of the CSA comes from Dolowitz (2001). In his paper he illustrates how he sees the incomplete, selective and misinterpreted policy transfer from the US's equivalent child support body to the new British Child Support Agency in 1993 as being a contributory factor in producing the initial problems the CSA faced.[2]

Another factor is that despite a policy of controlled delegation, the Audit of Accountability (Hogwood et al) found that "agency status does not prevent ministerial involvement in day-to-day operational matters, nor does it ensure regular involvement in overviews of the work of the agency." (www.childsupportanalysis.co.uk.). This means that the line of distinction becomes blurred allowing people to hide from their responsibility by blaming the other party. "M.R. [Ministerial Responsibility] is a ruling fiction whereby ministers shelter behind civil servants and vice versa," (Lewis and Longley 1996: 503). The CSA is a good example here as it had problems with both policy and operational issues, "The CSA became implicated not only in a policy that was controversial and far from straightforward but also in some highly publicised errors of execution." (Barberis, 1998:457)

One could argue that part of the CSA's problem was the interference from the minister and changes to policy that were to constantly harass the agency. "There were Sixty Two changes in the basis for child support assessment in about 4 year," (Harlow 1999: 173) whilst Harlow (1999:173) also states that she believes that "Government was pushed by unfavourable publicity into changes which made the CSA more error-prone, building longer backlogs and more delay." Can you blame civil servants for operational failure when such changes to policy are so frequent and detrimental?

Blame was apportioned to both government and the agency yet it was only the executive that resigned. The minister, whom doctrine dictates is ultimately accountable, never saw that accountability come to bear. Surely this is an unacceptable situation and warrants the reassessing of the nature of such an accountability divide.

The Solution: A New Accountability?

The case for a more contemporary system of accountability, which is able to withstand the new organisational structures within the public sector, has been stated in several recent papers. (Lewis and Longley 1996; Barberis 1998; Harlow 1999).

Lewis and Longley (1996: 503) believe that "the contribution of officials towards the decision-making process should be made more visible, including their advice on policy options which are rejected." By allowing access to the policy making process, especially detailing civil servants inputs, it could help to 'pin' responsibility to a minister. If policy can be found to be the cause of problems, especially policy, which has gone against civil servants advice, then the minister, must be held accountable. Likewise civil servants cannot dodge responsibility if they agree or supported the policy.

Lewis and Longley (1996: 505) give the benchmark example of the New Zealand system where "[the] policy papers prepared by civil servants were entering the public domain once relevant policy decisions had been reached." Whilst they also suggest that "the U.S. practice of creating a policy 'record' needs to be adopted," Lewis and Longley, 1996:506). Certainly there is a clearly justifiable argument that visibility of the policy making process can help to clarify who is responsible for decisions that are reached and implemented, and that the UK is significantly behind other developed countries in executing this. Barberis (1998) also recognises the inadequacies of the traditional doctrine of accountability. Following a comprehensive analysis of the current problems Barberis introduces a new model of what public sector accountability could evolve into; see fig 1 below.

FIGURE 1 Synopsis of public accountability, reproduced from Barberis (1998:466)

Barberis' intention for this model is that it is not taken on face value and rather becomes a way of stimulating debate around the topic. He clearly states that it is not a 'finite prescription'. "The most important principles lie in the notion of disaggregating different dimensions of accountability and the idea that civil servants rather than ministers assume a direct, first line responsibility for certain of these dimensions." (Barberis, 1998:466). The solid lines for civil servants denote a more bounded accountability whereas the dotted lines can be taken to represent less clear cut extremities of accountability. Such a model can certainly help one to consider the elements of the accountability problem and further development and theorisation along these lines may help to bring concrete changes to the British public accountability system.

Notes

[1] This was almost unprecedented and went against the traditional approach; Ms Hepplewhite was actually speaking on behalf of the agency rather than on behalf of her minister as was prescribed. (Barberis, 1998)

[2] Dolowitz outlines how the Thatcher government turned to the American system as a model for the new CSA body they were setting up. Problems occurred because information was insufficient on how the American system worked, the information available was subject to highly selective interpretation, several elements off the American system were dropped, and cultural and ideological difference weren't taken into account. (Dolowitz, 2001:384)

Barberis, P. (1998) 'The New Public Management and a New Accountability,' Public Administration, Vol. 76 pp. 451-470.

Dolowitz, D. P. (2001) 'The British Child Support Agency: did American origins bring failure?' Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, Vol. 19 pp. 373-389.

Harlow, C. (1999) 'Accountancy, New Public management and the Problems of the Child Support Agency,' Journal of Law and Society Vol. 26 (2) pp. 150-74.

Lewis, N. and Longley, D. (1996) 'Ministerial responsibility: The Next Steps,' Public Law 1996 Autumn (3) pp. 490-507.

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Page last updated: 23 February, 2003 © Copyright G Bates, D Hutchinson, T Robertson, A Wadsworth, R Watson 2002