How effectively does the UK’s government develop strategic policy solutions and foster dialogue in the process?
The Management Index assesses a country’s capacity for reform. Three categories examine the ability to plan and implement policies. Accountability assesses the extent to which non-executive actors are included in the political process.
Compared to his predecessor, Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke far less about a coherent strategy, partly because he wanted to distance himself from Tony Blair’s legacy as embodied in the “New Labour” brand (and against whose market-driven reforms he had often provided internal opposition), but also because he felt that the British people had tired of the grand designs to which they had often been subjected in the past.
Although the United Kingdom’s political system is one of the most centralized in the world, resources directly at the disposal of the prime minister are relatively few, as there is no prime minister’s department. The Prime Minister’s Office was reorganized in 2001, and that organization was not affected by the change in government from Blair to Brown. Direct support for the prime minister comes from the Number 10 Policy Unit, which under Brown comprised 10 hand-picked advisers (several of whom had previously advised Brown at the Treasury); further support is concentrated in the Cabinet Office, which houses the prime minister’s Strategy Unit.
Manifestly, the last two years have been dominated by the need to manage the crises in the financial sector and in the real economy. In these circumstances, the government did not display the same strategic outlook as in the preceding period.
When planning strategically in the past, the prime minister had to take into account the considerable resources of the most important department, namely the Treasury (which combines narrow finance-ministry functions with a significant policy steering capacity). However, Prime Minister Brown faced no such competition. This goes to show that institutional capacity (considerable) and actual use of strategic planning (relatively high under Blair; somewhat less so under Brown) are two different things.
In 2007, on the day before Gordon Brown took over as prime minister, a report by the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee on “Governing the Future” was published, setting out government thinking about strategic planning in the core executive. That document has served as a blueprint ever since.
Non-governmental experts from academic and business backgrounds have played an important role in conducting independent reviews of central government policy and strategy in recent years. Examples include the Review of the Economics of Climate Change conducted by Sir Nicholas Stern (Stern was a civil servant at the time he conducted the review, although he is from an academic background), the Pensions Commission under the chairmanship of Lord Turner and the Review of Health Trends headed by Sir Derek Wanless. As is evident from the titles, such reviews are often delegated to well-established public figures who may or may not also have an academic background. They tend to draw freely on academic expertise and thought. Scholarly advice is obtained through a variety of channels, but tends to fluctuate depending on the direction given by individual ministers and the vagaries of individual appointments. From time to time, senior academics are seconded or appointed to high-profile advisory posts in government. All government departments make use of external consultants to carry out studies. These contracts are usually offered through competitive bid, and are sometimes by academics, sometimes by different sorts of consulting firms. In addition, many ministers or civil servants tend to seek informal advice from selected academics recognized to be specialists in a particular area of interest. In addition, there are examples of academics being selected to lead commissions of inquiry, such as the London School of Economics’ John Hills, who conducted a review of social housing. Finally, several leading academics have been appointed to the House of Lords.
The influence wielded by think tanks such as the Fabian Society or the Institute for Public Policy Research has been declining in the last two years, for the reasons set out above, but also because the hectic pace of dealing with the consequences of the financial market crisis has left little room for strategic long-term policy thinking. However, other think tanks such as Policy Network have increased their influence in the last two years, building on connections to powerful ministers, and a number of right-of-center think-tanks have clearly played a part in influencing the incoming government, particularly on the issue of social policy.
The Cabinet Office is in effect the central coordinating agency in government. It has high-quality civil servants who are responsible for different policy areas and support cabinet committees. Closer to the prime minister is the prime minister’s Strategy Unit (PMSU), which besides thinking about long-term issues, has also become involved in policy work. It is the tool of choice to “provide policy advice in accordance with the prime minister’s policy priorities,” as the first of its three functions states. The Number 10 Policy Unit evaluates ministerial draft bills and deals with the more day-to-day issues in coordinating policy. It is mainly staffed by policy experts drawn from outside government, but also includes some civil servants.
Special advisers appointed by ministers but paid from public funds fulfill a more political function. Although their role sometimes causes conflict with that of civil servants, they can often help (notably in working with ministerial private offices) in striking deals and coordinating strategy. Their capacity to do so often depends on the skill of the individuals and the standing of their ministers as much as their formal positions.
The Cabinet Secretariat prepares the early program for cabinet meetings, which then must be approved by the prime minister. This puts him or her in a very strong position to control the cabinet agenda. The Secretariat may contact ministers’ offices to request that the secretary of state make a presentation, present a paper or raise an issue during cabinet discussions. The provision of a written agenda for cabinet meetings and/or written information material for ministers attending takes place at the discretion of the prime minister, further enhancing his power. Special advisers to ministers also play a role in this respect.
Prime ministers’ conventions for line ministries to clear their plans with the core executive vary with the political strength of the prime minister, and with the existence of powerful rivals within the cabinet. Since the prime minister controls the cabinet’s agenda, important policy initiatives and legislative proposals always require consultation with the core executive before they are developed in any detail. This trend has been further strengthened in recent years through an emphasis on “joined-up” government across Whitehall, which aims to subject individual policy decisions to evaluation in the light of long-term strategy. There is also a long-standing convention of cabinet collective responsibility, which requires that the line minister persuade the rest of the cabinet or the relevant cabinet committee of the desirability of his or her policies. Ministers’ private offices, nearly always staffed by rising stars in the civil service, help to assure coordination.
A special role is played by the Treasury, the most important ministry in overseeing initiatives that involve substantial public expenditure. This became very evident during handling of the recent banking crisis, the handling of which saw Treasury take an absolutely central role. Given its institutional and strategic coherence, as well as the breadth of its oversight (derived in large part from its annual budget negotiations with other ministries), it is a very powerful force within central government. Luckily for Prime Minister Brown, he had no determined adversary at the Treasury’s helm during the crisis – a fact that certainly helped in the handling of the most substantial challenge for central government in several decades.
Cabinet committees exist at the discretion of the prime minister, and it is the prime minister who decides on their composition. In the past, the existence and composition of cabinet committees was secret, and decision-making by them was used to bypass opposition in the full cabinet; more recently, decision-making in cabinet committees has been part of a general move to more informal forms of government with a strong prime minister at the center. At present, some 45 cabinet committees exist, and their purposes and composition are publicly known. Cabinet committees thus play an important role in the United Kingdom. What is decided by an influential cabinet committee will tend to be agreed to (sometimes with little or no discussion) by the full cabinet.
Under the leadership of the cabinet secretary (who is also the head of the home civil service), the Cabinet Secretariat prepares cabinet meetings in close consultation with the prime minister, who gives directions and decides upon the agenda. There is a Cabinet Office board that oversees the organization, as well as several groups (such as the domestic policy group, several intelligence-related groups, an IT-focused group and the communications group) that provide specialized services for the preparation of cabinet meetings. The top officials in each ministry (known as permanent undersecretaries in the UK) also constitute a key network, members of which regularly meet formally and informally.
Line Ministry civil servants coordinate their policy proposals in a number of ways. One is through project teams that cut across departments and aim to enhance policy coordination – the so-called task forces. They operate to enhance “joined-up” government, an idea which has recently regained some attention, although the problem of the lack of coordination within Whitehall was identified as early as the 1970 White Paper on the reorganization of central government. Interaction between line ministries and the two overseeing departments (the Cabinet Office and Treasury) is a key part of the system, although a ministry can advance proposals a certain extent before they are opened up to wider influence.
The creation of departmental strategy units, different in size and shape though they are, has helped to make departments more aware of long-term perspectives. In addition, a central “Foresight Center,” led by the government’s chief scientific adviser and located in the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, is specifically tasked with coordination between departments, and uses small teams of individually picked civil servants to fulfill its role.
Informal coordination occurs through a wide variety of mechanisms, including the whips’ office in Parliament, the proximity between ministers and MPs and members of the House of Lords in Parliament, meetings between governing party MPs, and networks involving special advisers. Under Tony Blair, the government had developed an increasingly informal style of decision-making. Judging from the Blair government record, the informal coordination procedures worked quite well, but critics saw these as detrimental to cabinet government.
Under Prime Minister Brown, the roles of the cabinet and of cabinet discussions were meant to be enhanced again, and a wider formalization of political decision-making was hinted at. There was talk (though nothing came of it) of a written constitution following an all-party convention, and the new prime minister guaranteed that the House of Commons would be able to vote before the UK engaged in any future war.
However, the financial crisis of 2007 demonstrated that in an emergency, the core executive is very effective at developing informal coordination and decision-making mechanisms, such as the one that brought together the Treasury, the Financial Services Authority and the Bank of England to deal with the crisis triggered by the Northern Rock bank.
The Better Regulation Executive (BRE), originally part of the Cabinet Office, has now moved to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), previously known as the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR). Seemingly somewhat downgraded in importance, the group’s key goal is now to improve regulation, mainly by reference to a set of principles: All regulations should be transparent, accountable, proportionate, consistent and targeted. The department’s goal is to reduce the costs of regulation to businesses in Britain by 25% by 2010. There is no longer any mention of regulatory impact assessments (RIAs) in their annual report.
While many RIAs are still being produced in Britain (as the Treasury website shows, for example), academic research suggests that their results are not systematically integrated into civil service decision-making procedures, and may just be a sign of the “hypermodernism” characteristic of the British regulatory state – a discursive element rather than an instrument for steering change. The degree to which RIA shapes the final legislation is probably impossible to estimate with any precision.
Claudio Radaelli: Desperately Seeking Regulatory Impact Assessments: Diary of a Reflective Researcher, in: Evaluation 2009 (15), 1, 31-48
The manual for regulatory impact assessments, authored by the “Better Regulation Executive,” states with respect to needs analysis: “Define your objective clearly so that it sets out the outcome you are aiming for. Make this clear, concise and specific.”
The manual provided by the “Better Regulation Executive” explicitly states that users should analyze “a wide range of options, including the do-nothing option,” and provides a detailed quantified analysis of the costs and benefits of different alternatives to regulatory impact analysis itself.
Formalized influence on the policy-making process by institutions such as trade unions and employers’ associations was for a long time unpopular in the United Kingdom, because of bad experiences in the 1960s and 1970s. There is a widespread view that government alone should make decisions and consequently be held accountable for them. The Blair government managed to change that perception, and succeeded in making the policy-making process more collaborative, albeit in a more informal way than is the case in many continental European countries. The “stakeholder” approach has been very popular, and the government has established a number of committees in which actors from the private sector and the third sector of voluntary bodies and charities are members, and are thus able to provide input to government consultation exercises and receive documents associated with the issues at hand.
However, this form of enhanced participation remains largely at the discretion of the government, although it has also been partially institutionalized through mechanisms such as the regulatory impact assessment movement. Perceiving its role as one of ultimate responsibility, the government has tried to keep control of the decision-making process throughout, which has repeatedly led to criticism by other stakeholders.
The government has established quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations (known as quangos) in a wide range of areas, whose work has influence on the decision-making process. In some cases, their stance can be controversial; for example, there has been dissent (and resignations from the board) within the Equal Opportunities Commission over the last two years. The expertise in the House of Lords (many of the members of which are crossbenchers selected for their eminence rather than for party-political roles) can also provide a sounding-board for government. However, the government can take or leave any such advice, and rarely feels obliged to seek a social consensus, as might happen in countries where civil society has a more formalized governance function.
Central control of government communication has been one of the defining characteristics of the New Labour government. Tony Blair’s first director of communications, Alastair Campbell, was a controversial press officer with a high political profile who controlled government communication centrally and tightly. In 2001, a Strategic Communications Unit was created to deal with longer-term media and presentation issues.
The dominance of a centrally controlled government “message,” and the preparedness to take on even institutions such as the BBC in defense of the government’s communications position, became unpopular over time, and was decried by critics as “spinning.” Prime Minister Brown actively sought to distance himself from this approach, but suffered the opposite problem of failing to connect successfully with the British electorate. This communications failure is often attributed to personal characteristics of the prime minister. Collective responsibility in the cabinet underpins the coherence of messages, though leaks can undermine this, and the mere fact that ministries have their own press offices, sometimes operating under pressure, can lead to contradictory statements. A recent television comedy series, “The Thick of It” has parodied the government’s approach to communication and was adjudged by many to be viciously accurate – replicating the success of the, “Yes Minister” series from the 1980s.
In the highly centralized political system of the United Kingdom, there are no discernible “veto players” who could effectively keep the central government from achieving its own policy objectives. Although devolution has changed the political landscape in the United Kingdom over the last decade or so, the country has not developed into a federal system where subunits have influence on central state decision-making. Furthermore, there is no written constitution and no Constitutional Court to act as counters to the government. The central bank, while independent in the implementation of monetary policy, has an inflation target set by the chancellor of the exchequer that it must adhere to, and is formally required to write an explanatory letter if the inflation rate falls outside the target range (currently plus or minus one percentage point around the inflation target of 2%). During the acute phase of the financial market crisis, after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the autumn of 2008, the government’s response demonstrated its ability both to come up with a viable solution and to implement it effectively.
In the usual circumstances of a single-party government with a working majority in the House of Commons, party whipping ensures that governments nearly always win votes. On the rare occasions where a vote is lost, it tends to be because the merits of the government case are widely questioned within the governing party. The House of Lords can hold up but not ultimately stop a bill, unless it runs out of parliamentary time. There is a convention that the Lords will not block a bill that is part of the governing party’s electoral program commitment. Most often, the government will recognize that amendments are needed and offer compromises; however, the government can still be defeated, as was the case in October 2008 over proposals to extend to 42 days the period a suspect could be held before being charged.
The British prime minister has sole power to appoint politicians to ministerial positions at the junior or cabinet levels, and thus has a great power of patronage. Unless the prime minister is considered politically weakened almost beyond recovery, trying to oppose him is politically very dangerous, as he or she can make or break political careers (“A good prime minister has to be a good butcher,” said Harold Macmillan).
Ministerial compliance thus largely depends on the political strength of the prime minister of the day. In the case of Gordon Brown, an initial period of strength in the second half of 2007 turned into weakness after he decided not to hold a general election in the autumn of 2007. As his poll ratings declined, there were several attempts by cabinet ministers to unseat him; however, none of these gained sufficient support in the cabinet or among MPs to be successful. At the same time, it must be considered a sign of the prime minister’s political weakness that he failed to retaliate effectively against the organizers of these attempted coups.
There is also an established doctrine of collective responsibility which means that once a position is agreed upon, ministers either have to agree with it, or if they wish to object publicly, resign. Such resignations of principle are rare, although one cabinet minister who did resign in the hope of precipitating a change of leadership was James Purnell (June 2009). In practice, selective leaks (“briefing”) to journalists, usually on the understanding that no attribution will be made, are the more typical means of expressing opposition to government policies.
Tight integration between the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the Cabinet Office make it possible for a British prime minister to be effective in determining the government’s strategic direction. However, the organizational discontinuities and name changes that this office has experienced (Central Policy Review Staff; No. 10 Policy Unit; No. 10 Policy Directorate; No. 10 Policy Unit), demonstrate that views about the best way of organizing direction and control through the core executive depend very much on the personal views of the serving prime minister, as well as that organizational and administrative fashions change over time.
More important is the role of the Treasury, which is not just a ministry of finance, but also sees itself as responsible for oversight of line ministries’ policy implementation. The degree to which the Treasury exercises oversight depends partly on the political strength of the chancellor of the exchequer. This strength was considerable under the tacit division of responsibilities between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown up to Blair’s departure in 2007. In the two years under review here, the Treasury perhaps lost a little power (though its energy has also been consumed by crisis management). However, the framework put in place by Brown – notably governed by public service agreements that are, in effect, contracts with line ministries – still mean that the Treasury has a strong influence.
Since the early 1990s, most of the increasing number of government agencies were removed from direct departmental control under the “Next Steps” program. This move was designed to streamline administrative procedures and allow agencies to concentrate on their specific tasks. More than 75% of civil servants now work in agencies. The conscious separation of policy-making from implementation has fragmented ministries’ lines of control, which has from time to time created problems in monitoring agency actions in detail. Nevertheless, ministers remain accountable both to Parliament and to public opinion for the agencies under their jurisdiction. This means that even though ministers may be somewhat insulated from cases of poor administration, they can still face severe criticism and may be obliged to resign or force the resignation of senior agency figures if an agency is shown to be performing poorly, as happened with the head of the tax collection agency late in 2007 following the revelation that taxpayer data had been mislaid. The intensity of oversight will often depend on the caliber of the minister and his or her immediate advisers, but the incentives for ministers to exert some care are manifestly in place.
There are two categories of subnational government in the UK that make it difficult to provide a unified answer in this section. Three of the four countries of the UK (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) have devolved governments and responsibility for major areas of public services, such as health and education. However, there is no government of England per se. Moreover, there are local authorities that in England are linked directly to central government departments, while in the other countries, the link is to the respective devolved government.
In spite of devolution in Scotland and Wales, the United Kingdom is still a very centralized state when it comes to the funding of public tasks. The allocation of public funds from the general account of the Exchequer is subject to political and administrative negotiations, as there is no other constitutional mechanism able to govern the process. While some stability of funding is provided in certain areas through agreements such as the “Barnett formula” for Scotland, Wales and England (but not Northern Ireland), the allocation of funds takes place in principle at the discretion of the central government. Especially in times of fiscal problems, sometimes severe budget constraints will simply be imposed on the recipients by the central government. English local authorities obtain block grants that constitute the bulk of their direct central-government funding, and raise additional revenue from a property-linked “council tax.” Local authorities in the other three UK countries deal directly with their respective devolved administrations, which obtain their own block grants from the central government. A result is that the mix of public services may differ – for example, the terms on which care for the elderly is provided differ in England and Scotland because of a political choice made by the Scottish government to be more generous with free care – a fact that engenders some resentment south of the border.
Central government does impose tasks on local government which the latter is apt to complain are unfunded, but the reality is that there is not a direct link between funding and tasks, and it is the responsibility of the local government to make choices based on its block grant with respect to balancing the priorities and tasks assigned to it.
While local authorities were given more independence and assigned new tasks in the early stages of the New Labour government, and were required to work together with other local institutions in order to meet targets and performance indicators set by the central government, this “new localism” was only patchily implemented. Since local authorities possess no constitutional rights, any increased autonomy for them relies on the discretion of the central government.
Even though devolution in Scotland and Wales is strictly speaking not a constitutional matter either, the general consensus is that the devolution acts cannot be repealed by the British Parliament against the devolved governments’ wishes. Moreover, the rights granted to the subnational entities vary, in that the Scottish Parliament has the power to vary the basic income tax rate by 3% in either direction (although it has not done so). The Welsh Assembly has no such power.
On the whole, the central government makes no attempt to dictate to the country governments (i.e., Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) how they use their discretionary powers, but can be more prescriptive towards English local authorities. The decision not to impose university fees in Scotland has led to controversy, as they are imposed in England, and this has resulted in Scotland asking English students to pay, but not those from other European countries.
The New Labour government has used the idea of setting targets to achieve national public service standards in many areas, including for local authorities and the National Health Service. However, the plethora of targets under strict central government oversight, resulting in audits and inspections, has drawn criticisms of Soviet-style administration practices. There is some evidence that this model has encouraged tactical behavior in the public sector.
In practice, what are known as “post-code lotteries” exist with respect to health care standards and school quality, generally because of differences in local areas’ social mixes and managerial styles. The central government push toward equal standards is thus often confronted by differences in implementation.
Christopher Hood: Gaming in Targetworld: The Targets Approach to Managing British Public Services, in: Public Administration Review, July / August 2006, 515-521
Ministry organization is a prerogative of the prime minister, and ministries are very often merged into single organizational units or divided into several organizational units, in such a way as to reflect the specific interests of the government and/or the officeholder. A recent example of this is offered by the Department of Trade and Industry, which Prime Minister Gordon Brown divided into the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in June 2007. The two new departments were rejoined in June 2009 (when Lord Mandelson joined the government), but the name was changed again to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
There is a Europe Minister within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (i.e., the ministry of foreign affairs) and a secretariat within the Cabinet Office that deals with European issues, as well as a designated coordinator for the EU’s Lisbon Strategy. However, the structure of government in the UK is for the most part shaped by domestic imperatives. At the parliamentary level, changes have been introduced to procedures to allow the British Parliament to intervene in the early stages of European policy formulation.
A National Reform Program (NRP), elaborated in the autumn of 2008 and required as part of the UK’s commitments under the Lisbon Strategy, was produced and did take account of recommendations to the UK government from the European Commission. In particular, the program included proposals to deal with the skills gaps that had been highlighted by the commission. However, the NRP has no visibility in UK political and policy discourse, and it would be hard to show that either the policy focus or the structures of governance in the UK had changed much as a result of the NRP’s production. On the other hand, some responsiveness to wider trends such as ‘”green” issues can be discerned in the recent restructuring of environment and energy ministries, with the latter having been assigned explicit responsibility for dealing with climate change.
In line with its active stance on international commitments, the UK has long played a leading role in coordinating international initiatives. This has also been the case on the EU level, even if the United Kingdom has been perceived by many as a reluctant and obstructive European. In reality, in areas such as structural reform or climate change, the UK has been fairly influential. Other initiatives in recent years have included the active promotion of efforts to eradicate poverty in Africa, as well as support for cooperative international security policies (e.g., over Iran’s nuclear program).
In the recent financial market crisis, the UK government under Prime Minister Brown also played a very active role in finding solutions to systemic problems in the financial sector, and in promoting a new regulatory framework for the financial system within the context of the G-20 and the European Union. The government used the United Kingdom’s chairmanship of the G-20 to initiate a November 2008 pledge by member countries to enhance their efforts at global cooperation. Since the United Kingdom, which often has pursued policies consonant with the interests of the City of London, had often been an obstacle to such cooperation on regulatory reform in the past, this was a noteworthy change of course.
The British government’s high degree of decision-making flexibility and centralization, both with respect to policy and institutional organization, does carry with it the disadvantage of relatively little procedural structure. This has been criticized by observers as “sofa government” – certainly under the Blair government – and some who take a position of “British government in crisis” have advocated the implementation of stricter rules of procedure for decision-making in the core executive. However, binding the hands of the core executive would run counter to the very flexibility that is so characteristic of prime ministerial government in the United Kingdom.
Reorganizations take place from time to time (as described above), and monitoring exercises are routinely conducted, but whether any government in the future will want to bind its own hands despite the absence of discernible positive political effect must remain doubtful.
There are nevertheless diverse checks and balances and processes of monitoring, including published public service agreements between the Treasury and line ministries, the scrutiny of programs by the Cabinet Office, and the need for the government to anticipate intense and effective media scrutiny. Collectively, these prompt the government to try to anticipate potential problems. Periodic reconfigurations of ministerial responsibilities do occur, but they tend to be more because the prime minister (especially a new one) decides that change is warranted, possibly for political reasons, than due to any systematic self-monitoring.
Christopher Foster: British Government in Crisis, Oxford: Hart 2005
Flexibility in the organization of the core executive and the ministries is very much at the heart of British prime ministerial government. Under Prime Minister Blair, a clear trend towards more centralization of decision-making and the strengthening of the institutional capacity of the Prime Minister’s Office was discernible. The Policy Unit and the Private Office were merged into a new Policy Directorate, a decision that was reversed after Prime Minister Gordon Brown took office.
However, the Strategy Unit, originally established in 2001 to work on long-term policies, continues to exist, although staffing in the unit was shifted in order to bring in confidantes of the new prime minister.
Cabinet collective responsibility remains important, but it is difficult to judge whether the periodic changes in government structures reduce or increase strategic capacity.
The British government very actively tries to inform citizens of government policies, mainly through very detailed websites both on the core executive and ministerial level. Nevertheless, most citizens gain their knowledge of government initiatives and policies from the printed and electronic mass media rather than directly from government websites. Opinion poll data indicates that, with respect to widely touted “e-government” initiatives, citizens above all expect increased accountability on the part of the government (28%), better cost effectiveness (19%) and only then better information for themselves (18%).
It can be argued that the way the information is made available is somewhat passive – that is, it is there for anyone who wants to access it, but government is not inclined to reach out to inform citizens more actively, except at election times.
Topline Data Poll for the Council for Excellence in Government, April 2003
Parliamentary committees have the right to ask for government documents, which in the normal course of business will already be made available to them. However, there are occasional disputes with government over the provision of specific information, and committees will then have to order the production of government documents. Their rights are thus not formally limited, but there is sometimes a political struggle between the committee and the government, although the struggle is usually mediated by the fact that the government party also has the majority on the committee, and party political motives rarely come into play.
Ministers can be summoned to parliamentary committee hearings, but they cannot be forced to attend, because ministers have to be members of Parliament, and MPs cannot be forced to attend any meeting. However, ministers will usually accept an invitation to a hearing in a select committee. Whether they then give full answers to the committee or are allowed to stonewall will often depend on the caliber of the committee members.
Parliamentary committees may summon expert witnesses, who will usually provide any evidence willingly. Should they decline to do so, committees then have the power to order a witness to attend.
It is also important to stress that committees may summon actors involved in an issue being investigated by a committee. A good example was the examination by the Treasury Committee (in February 2009) of the deposed chairmen and chief executives of the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS following the public bailout of their banks.
Every government department is shadowed by a committee in the House of Commons (at the time of writing, there were 19 of these committees). The remit and number of committees changes to reflect changes in the makeup of the government. Recent changes have included the creation of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, which examines the performance of the new Department of Energy and Climate Change, as well as the Business Innovation and Skills Committee, and the Science and Technology Committee in October 2009. House of Lords select committees are less directly matched to departmental task areas, but cover important broad areas – one example being the European Union Select Committee, which in turn has subcommittees that cover distinctive topics such as economic and financial affairs or the environment from an EU perspective.
However, the capacity of committees to monitor effectively is limited due to a lack of resources and limited continuity in membership (House of Lords rules oblige members to be rotated off a committee after four years, for example). This disjunction between full coincidence and effectiveness of scrutiny somewhat diminishes this variable.
The National Audit Office is independent of government. Its head, the comptroller and auditor general, is by statute an officer of the House of Commons. The office scrutinizes public spending on behalf of Parliament and is accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts (PAC). The PAC, in turn, often has a strong impact on public debate.
The British Parliament has a Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, which looks into complaints if “government departments, their agencies and some other public bodies in the UK – and the NHS in England – have not acted properly or fairly or have provided poor services.” Besides the parliamentary ombudsman (which also has offices in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh National Assembly and other government institutions), there are several other ombuds services in the UK, including Energywatch, the Financial Ombudsman Service, the Local Government Ombudsman, the UK Pensions Ombudsman and several others.
Several of these ombuds services, such as the Local Government Ombudsman, have been accused of bias and mere rubberstamping of the decisions of the institutions they are meant to oversee.
The main TV and radio stations in the United Kingdom, especially those that run under a public charter such as the BBC, provide an extensive array of high-quality news services. Government decisions feature prominently in this programming, and information about and analysis of government decisions is both extensive and held to a high standard. There is substantial competition for viewers, in particular between the BBC, SKY and Channel 4, and in addition to news programs, all provide in-depth analysis programs on politics and policy in a variety of formats. The “Today” program on BBC Radio 4 is well-known for its highbrow political analysis and scrutiny, and often sets the tone for political debates. However, there are also news and magazine shows on other more popular radio channels.
The style of interview on these programs is often explicitly nondeferential, and sometimes even confrontational, which is justified by the need to hold politicians and especially government ministers to account.
The UK is traditionally a two-party system in which the manifestoes of the two leading parties are credible and coherent, and that of the third party is generally also plausible. Smaller fringe parties are more often focused on a single issue (the UK Independence Party, for example, which is focused on withdrawal from the EU, or the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales). Given that only two (or now three) parties are likely to be in government, a high score for this question is justified. Even when a hung parliament became likely in the run-up to the May 2010 general election, the programs of the three major parties retained plausibility, and the assumption was (as the events after the election confirmed) that any necessary horse-trading among the parties would mean that the more ideological proposals would be dropped.
A strong tradition of energetic public debate on issues of policy and politics exists in the United Kingdom, and is reflected both in citizens’ and media attitudes towards politicians and their proposals. Especially during the comparatively brief and very intense periods of general election campaigns, party manifestoes are scrutinized in detail by journalists. Since manifesto commitments enjoy the constitutional privilege of not being able to be vetoed by the House of Lords (under the Salisbury Convention), they are considered to be very important, and consequently parties strive for consistency and viability in them.
The absence of coalition government in the United Kingdom in recent decades has meant that parties in government usually have no excuse not to implement their manifesto commitments, which is a further incentive not to fill them with daydreams.
The major business associations propose practical policy solutions, rooted in a realistic assessment of the circumstances they will be carried out in. Since polarization between the major parties has been reduced substantially over the last two decades (especially in the field of socioeconomic policy matters), there is little incentive for business associations to engage in wishful thinking if they want to be taken seriously in the national policy discourse. However, some economic interests do propose relatively more provocative ideas.
The United Kingdom has a tradition of close scrutiny of policy proposals. While a “loony fringe” of interest associations (and parties – see the Monster Raving Loony Party) and policy proposals certainly exists, it can generally be said that the quality and realism of policy proposals determines the degree to which any interest group is taken seriously in the country’s national political discourse.
However, the abundance of NGOs with often-narrow policy agendas does mean that these groups can overlook the wider ramifications of the pursuit of their issue. By the same token, the diversity of such bodies allows a wide range of proposals to obtain a hearing.
Governments in charge
SGI 2011 review period (May 2008 to April 2010) is outlined. Shown are: Prime minister or president, type of government, and ruling parties. Asterisks indicate national parliamentary or presidential elections.
Country scores and texts were produced by the country coordinator, based on comprehensive assessments by two country experts.
Prof. Nils C. Bandelow Technical University of Braunschweig
Prof. Andreas Busch University of Göttingen
Prof. Iain Begg London School of Economics and Political Science