Report on good government

18 June 2009

In a wide-ranging examination of government in Britain published today, the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) sets out its requirements for achieving good government. PASC’s report draws on and consolidates the Committee’s work over the past decade in order to identify enduring principles of good government

It also applies these principles to set out proposals for reforming British government.

The report concludes that many aspects of Britain’s governing structures and principles work well, despite opinions to the contrary that are sometimes expressed. PASC also finds, however, that there are significant features of Britain’s political system that inhibit good government. In particular, PASC concludes there are too many ministers and a political culture too focused on responding to media demands. This has resulted in an excessive number of initiatives being launched and laws being introduced, which in turn reduces government’s ability to decide and follow a clear and consistent direction. PASC urges government to place less emphasis on responding to short-term political pressures and instead urges a stronger focus on ensuring good basic administration in government.

PASC’s conclusions about government in Britain are based on five requirements that it has identified as prerequisites for good government:

  1. Good people: the need to recruit and cultivate people with the right skills and abilities to undertake the work of government effectively
  2. Good process: appropriate structures, systems and procedures in place to develop and implement policies successfully
  3. Good accountability: adequate arrangements for holding both elected and appointed officials to account for their decisions and actions
  4. Good performance: effective performance assessment to identify how well government is meeting its objectives and where it could improve
  5. Good standards: high ethical standards exhibited by people in public life, underpinned by robust ethical regulation and strong ethical leadership

Evaluating the current state of British government against these criteria, PASC makes the following key recommendations:

  • Encouraging a tighter, clearer focus in government, which might for example involve reducing the number of government ministers
  • Greater focus on achieving good standards of basic administration, as opposed to responding to media and political pressures to take new initiatives or introduce new laws
  • Ensuring that civil service recruitment and promotion processes emphasise the development of operational and delivery skills among civil servants as much as policy advice skills
  • Decentralising power wherever possible, in order to empower frontline public service workers and citizens and to ensure that decisions are made at the most appropriate level
  • Promoting more thorough and considered processes for making policies and laws, including effective parliamentary pre- and post-legislative scrutiny
  • Greater clarity about the roles and responsibilities of ministers and civil servants, so that accountability at the highest levels of government is well-defined and understood
  • Co-ordinating the work of government so that the right balance is struck between having an effective corporate centre and allowing departments sufficient autonomy to operate successfully
  • Establishing an independent body with the powers to assess and promote effective performance in government, ideally by changing the remit and operation of the National Audit Office
  • Fostering strong ethical leadership to promote high standards in public life, as well as transparent, independent and accountable ethical regulation.

Tony Wright MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"Now more than ever, there needs to be a wholesale change in the political culture to arrest the decline of public trust in government. Recent scandals about MPs’ expenses are the most obvious manifestation of this. But there are wider issues affecting government in Britain that need to be addressed.

"In thinking about the nature of good government, we have gone back to first principles to propose a number of reforms to how Britain is governed. These are designed to encourage tighter, more focused government, and a stronger emphasis on achieving good basic administration and high standards in public life. At present, the Government is considering various constitutional and political reforms to restore the credibility of Britain’s governing institutions. Key among them should be our reform proposals, based on the principles we set out for achieving good government."

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