in Local Government

A local Public Accounts Committee?

A piece in The Guardian’s Public Leader’s Network yesterday caught my imagination today. Although primarily about economic growth it referenced a previous publication (PDF) by the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) suggesting the creation of local Public Accounts Committees:

[CfPS chairman Nick Raynsford] raises the major challenge that without rethinking the basic forms and institutions of our democracy, leaders will “be haunted by the problems of public contempt”.

CfPS’s proposal for a local place-based Public Accounts Committee, which we floated last year and have been exploring further with stakeholders to develop ideas about how it might work in practice, is gaining traction in a range of places. We think that the principle of a single, powerful body to provide challenge to the leaders and managers of all local public services for their collective efforts to improve a local place is an important part of the case for more devolution.

After years of local government training my instinct is to think about why it is a bad idea and wouldn’t work. It would require genuine partnership between all parts of the public sector in an area but the old joke in local government partnership was that partnership is “something we do to other people,” a sadly prevalent attitude that needs to change. Yet the more I think about it, the more I can see the benefits.

The model, of course, is the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee which has had notable successes over the years. But perhaps more importantly has earned its status and, through its scrutiny of spending, has arguably created a culture in which more care is taken with public money.

A local public accounts committee would rarely capture the public imagination or media headlines, but by focusing on the how all public money is spent in an area it will also focus the minds of those spending it, and how they can collectively make that spending more effective. Ultimately, it will force those involved in an area to collectively think about what they are doing and—ideally—create a shared vision towards which they can work: something that happens incredibly rarely today.

Pessimistically I can see this as an idea that may never be implemented or, if it is, one killed off before it has a chance to prove its value. But if it were given a chance I’d bet we’d look at it in years to come and wonder why on earth we took so long to establish local PACs.

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