Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How do we get accountability back in local services?

Watching the news last night I saw the head of Haringey council issue an apology over the Baby P case while others called for him to resign. While I have some sympathy for the calls for him to resign, the truth is that the social services division operates independently of the council and, therefore, remains largely unaccountable to the local public.

This occurred to me to be symptomatic of the "democratic deficit" - the situation where however we vote, whoever we vote for makes not a jot of difference to the sort of government we get at local level. The majority of services are now no longer managed directly by the council, but by various appointed directors who often operate under national guidelines and procedures.

Although these "directors" report back to the council in some way - giving a facade of accountability - they are not elected or even effected by elections. These directors are often on fixed term contracts, usually very well paid and protected by employment law - even a complete change of council will not make any difference to the political structure or direction of the local services. They can be sacked - but only at a huge cost to the local taxpayer.

We need to get accountability back into local services. We need to be sure that if we vote in a council that vote will make a difference - currently that is not the case. Although we need local services to be professional that should not be at the expense of local services being accountable.

The only way I can think of doing that is through decentralisation. Get rid of national directives, policies and influence from most local services and permit local councils to run them as they see fit - whether it be social services, education or refuse collection. After all, wasn't that the way these things developed in the first place - local people deciding they had a particular need and finding a way to provide that need?

All central government should do is set up the loose framework of essential services - i.e. the basic bones of what local authorities are required to provide - and then let them get on with it, fund it how they can and manage it to the satisfaction of local people (not to the satisfaction of appointed inspectors).

I'm not sure exactly how this would be achieved just yet - I'll have a think about it - but I am certain that this lack of accountability is a key reason why more and more people are not bothering to vote. They just don't see that it makes any difference - and the reason for that is that our elected bureaucracy (which is all a government is) has been supplanted by a new tier of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats.

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