Leading Article: Clear accountability

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IN 1870, Gladstone's civil servants numbered only 50,000. Today, John Major has 504,000; and even the humble Scottish Office disposes of a budget comparable with the turnover of Shell UK. Not even the most conscientious minister, therefore, can be fairly expected to know everything that goes on in his department. Yet constitutional theory still holds that he - still too rarely she - must take responsibility for it. 'Civil servants merely advise, you know; only ministers decide.'

That is the fiction against which a new idea put to the Commons Treasury Committee should be seen. In yesterday's memo, Graham Mather suggests that policy boards in each government department, on which ministers, civil servants and outsiders would sit, should set policies and take the rap for their consequences. Top mandarins should be hired on fixed-term contracts, their jobs advertised publicly and open to all comers. Appointments and reappointments, Mr Mather argues, should be decided strictly on how well the incumbents have done their jobs.

These ideas are less revolutionary than they sound. Under the Tories' Next Steps programme, outside agencies are doing more and more government work on arm's length contracts. Moreover, the Civil Service already has sophisticated ways of assessing the performance of its members. A recent sign of this system in action was the discreet moving to another job of a senior civil servant responsible for the coal industry last winter.

Yet combining the jobs of setting and implementing policy into a single policy board could in fact make the Civil Service less, rather than more, accountable, for it would muddy the distinction between things that should be separate. What is needed, on the contrary, is to draw a clear line between the two: ministers should be responsible for the former, and civil servants for the latter.

To many MPs - particularly those in the Opposition who complain that the private- sector heads of Next Steps agencies cannot be hauled before parliamentary committees as easily as ministers or permanent secretaries - this may seem a threatening idea. Yet much of the accountability talked of in Parliament is bogus: who really believes that a minister has any practical power over the management of a local Jobcentre or the computer software in the ambulance service?

One danger to be avoided is the slippery slope of politicisation leading to an American-style all-change of officials with every new administration. Another concern is that civil servants in fear of their jobs might be more inclined to cover their own backs by blaming others than to hang together and get the policies right.

Such fears should not hold up the debate, however: other countries do things differently without going the whole US hog. Britain could borrow ideas from the cabinets of Paris and Brussels; it could consider the German idea of half-political 'state secretaries'; and it might even learn something from the close links between bureaucrats and big business in Japan. But the aims of the exercise should be clear: to make policies better, and to make the Civil Service more genuinely accountable to the public, while preserving the strengths of today's system. When calls for senior civil servants' resignations are as common as calls for those of company chairmen, things will be getting better.