Professor drives another lesson home in quest for accountability: Birmingham University's quango critic has a way of touching off debate. Liza Donaldson explains

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The Independent Online
WHO is Professor John Stewart? Some would say he is public management's answer to television's private company 'troubleshooter', Sir John Harvey Jones. But this management guru has no flair for flamboyant ties but for ideas that leap the divide between the public and private sector, stirring debate along the way.

Well known in public management circles as a riveting speaker, top-flight trainer and long-standing Professor of Local Government and Administration at the University of Birmingham, stirred up a tempest recently with his warning that a non-elected elite is taking control of many public services, creating a 'a crisis of accountability'.

The growth of what he calls 'quangoland' is turning the clock back more than 100 years to the 1880s, he says, before control of local services was transferred from magistrates to locally elected councils. He used the phrase 'the new magistracy' to describe the new lay elite that is being appointed centrally by the Government.

His ideas, released just over a year ago in a paper entitled 'Accountability to the Public' for the European Policy Forum, a right-wing think- tank, created a storm of interest among opinion formers in a way that observers say demonstrates his ability to seize on the key public service issues of the day.

Professor Stewart's analysis that: 'a non-elected elite are assuming responsibility for a large part of local governance' on the boards of health authorities, hospital and housing trusts, Training and Enterprise Councils, boards of governors of grant maintained schools and the governing bodies of colleges of education and further education, has also clearly stung Government ministers.

The rub for them was Professor Stewart's argument that: 'There is no sense which those appointed can be regarded as locally accountable . . . membership of these bodies is largely unknown locally'. He says they are not as open as councils, nor are they governed, as councils are, by legislation on access to information, external scrutiny and sanctions of surcharge. In sum: 'Accountability, such as it is, rests upon the accountability of these bodies to central government.'

William Waldegrave, Minister for Public Services and Science, went on the offensive, denying that public service changes were creating a 'democratic deficit' and claiming that Government reforms had provided 'democratic gain'. The minister put it this way: 'The key point is not whether those who run the services are elected, but whether they are producer or consumer responsive'.

Professor Stewart, who by no means believes all the changes are for the worse, does not accept that accountability to the customer can be substituted for public accountability. 'It can't because accountability to the customer could mean that customers get what they want. They can't, because services have to be rationed and supplied within public policy - something the Government itself believes in.'

He cites the national curriculum as an example of public policy that restricts pure customer choice in education. The other fatal flaw in Mr Waldegrave's arguments, he says, is to suggest that elected accountability and responsiveness to the customer are incompatible opposites. Professor Stewart says both are possible and adds: 'There is no evidence elected bodies are less responsive than appointed bodies.'

If the customer is king, he says, they have the ultimate choice, where local councillors are concerned, of removing them through the ballot box - whereas they cannot remove appointees. Only ministers or their acolytes can do that, he says, but adds: Ministers of any party have never been very ready to accept responsibility for failure in policy or action, even when directly under their control.' They are even less likely to accept it, he says, 'for all that is done by the growing panoply of appointed boards'.

So what is the worst and best outcome of this crisis? Professor Stewart believes that if quangoland continues to grow, things will go spectacularly wrong. He says the cases examined and lambasted by the Public Accounts Committee in its recent report are a taster.

Further, and more seriously, the public will see the Government as remote, and apathy will grow. But most crucially, ministers will be so overburdened that government will become ineffective and out-of-touch, promulgating disastrous policies such as the former poll tax and the current reorganisation of local government.

But he adds: 'I'm an optimist, so I see the situation reversing at some time in the future.' Other democratic countries, he says, are recognising that a decentralised system responds better to complex modern societies.

Professor Stewart would like to see the 'reinventing of public accountability'. One way would be to have quango members stand for election. But a more fundamental problem has to be solved, he says - strengthening people's commitment to voting at local level. Poor turnout for local elections of 40 to 45 per cent of voters in this country is a serious management problem - but rarely seen as such, he says. It should be addressed by examining why people do not vote and by solutions such as better advertising, postal ballots (a tried and successful method in New Zealand) and public juries to contribute to debate on public policy problems between elections (as piloted in Germany).

We should aim, he suggests, at: 'creating a habit of citizenship'.

Ministers are clearly not amused by what Graham Mather, president of the European Policy Forum, calls the 'sparkling lucidity' of Professor Stewart's academic arguments. Guru or no, his government appointments came to an abrupt end in 1981. It was probably no surprise to the outspoken Labour supporter (his wife Theresa is leader of Labour controlled Birmingham City Council).

The professor, who reasons that the private sector management model is often inappropriate and too narrow to embrace all of public management (it does not, he says, include issues like equity or the management of rationing), has done his fair share of provoking and making life uncomfortable for policy shapers. It is a role, he suggests impishly, that he also would play were a Liberal or Labour government in power.

His verdict, as he embarks on what may be his last major overview of councils in his 65th year, is that public management has improved. It has moved away from administration and professional enclaves to a situation where there is now commitment to management training and development, and to the job of management itself.

The public and society have come to reject what public bureaucracies determined for them, with the Citizen's Charter acting as a stimulus for encouraging and disseminating good practice such as quality management in the health service and the customer contracts, pioneered by York City Council.

Proper management, he asserts, starts from an analysis of the nature of the task, rather than the imposition of a blanket and possibly inappropriate strategy.

The job of public services is go in quest of its holy grail - 'the commonweal'. He concludes: 'I don't think you will ever find it, but you should always search for it.'