United Kingdom

   

Executive Accountability

#13
Key Findings
With a mix of strengths and weaknesses, the United Kingdom falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 13) with respect to executive accountability. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.4 points as compared to its 2014 level.

Parliamentarians, especially in the opposition, have relatively few resources, though formal oversight powers are adequate. The National Audit Office is independent and well-regarded. The ombuds system has been expanded in recent years, but all offices have limited resources and powers. An information commissioner enforces data-protection laws, but has no authority over security agencies.

For widely discussed issues, UK citizens show a high degree of policy knowledge in international comparison. Increasing amounts of government information are available online, with outreach campaigns targeting specific groups. Although the country’s main broadcast media produce high-quality news programming, newspaper quality varies widely.

Parties allow members – and in Labour’s case, “registered supporters” – to elect leaders, but other decisions are more centralized. Economic-interest organizations have become more assertive faced with the prospect of Brexit. Civil-society organizations are also sophisticated and offer reasonable, if sometimes narrow, proposals.

Citizens’ Participatory Competence

#4

To what extent are citizens informed of public policies?

10
 9

Most citizens are well-informed of a broad range of public policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many citizens are well-informed of individual public policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few citizens are well-informed of public policies; most citizens have only a rudimental knowledge of public policies.
 2
 1

Most citizens are not aware of public policies.
Political Knowledge
7
The UK government provides considerable information to its citizens through detailed websites, both at the core executive and the ministerial level. This flow of information has been enhanced in recent years. These websites contain general information, progress reports and statistical data. As part of its online material, the government makes some effort to ensure that citizens use this information by targeting specific groups. For example, a digital voter registration toolkit was developed in conjunction with a single-parent charity, while the “Rock Enrol!@” pack was designed to engage young people. The most important source of knowledge for citizens is TV broadcasting, followed by newspapers and radio.

According to an opinion poll by Ipsos MORI in 2010, 53% of those asked said that they had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of knowledge about politics, while 47% answered that they had “not very much” knowledge or knew “nothing at all.” The share of those claiming knowledge has risen over the previous decade by about ten percentage points, indicating a subjectively better understanding of politics by citizens in the United Kingdom. A telling figure is that the proportion of citizens voting in certain television talent competitions is higher than in many national elections. A more recent 2017 IPSOS-MORI “peril of perception” poll found the United Kingdom to be at the higher end of knowledge of widely discussed issues, though behind the better-informed Nordic countries.

Citations:
Ipsos MORI 2011: Knowledge of Politics 2003-2010; http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/2757/Knowledge-of-Politics-20032010.aspx?view=wide
https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/perils-perception-2017

Does the government publish data and information in a way that strengthens citizens’ capacity to hold the government accountable?

10
 9

The government publishes data and information in a comprehensive, timely and user-friendly way.
 8
 7
 6


The government most of the time publishes data and information in a comprehensive, timely and user-friendly way.
 5
 4
 3


The government publishes data in a limited and not timely or user-friendly way.
 2
 1

The government publishes (almost) no relevant data.
Open Government
10
The United Kingdom is highly committed to its open government agenda. It is a founding member of the Open Government Partnership, which since its beginning in 2011 has become a major global advocate for citizens’ free access to government data. Parliament, the government and the civil service reliably and timely publish all not-restricted documents on their websites.

The UK government has a long history of publishing official statistics, and since 2007 this has been governed by the Statistics and Registration Service Act. The act created the UK Statistics Authority, a non-ministerial department, with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) as an executive agency within the department (ONS previously reported into HMT). The act also created the Office for Statistics Regulation, which sets the Code of Practice for Official Statistics and oversees the accreditation of “National Statistics.” Beyond the official statistical system, the government publishes a wide-array of data and is a world leader in open data. The UK government publishes an extensive array of transparency data (e.g., senior public servants’ salaries, workforce data, special adviser pay, and details of ministerial and senior officials’ meetings) – over 9,000 items on the government website (gov.uk) are categorized as “transparency data” and over 10,000 FOI requests have been published. The government also has a dedicated data portal (data.gov.uk), which makes publicly accessible over 47,000 datasets published by the UK government and other public authorities. Furthermore, the United Kingdom alongside Canada ranked 1 out of 30 governments in the latest Open Data Barometer (2016 – 2017) and in the OECD’s latest OURdata index (2017) the United Kingdom ranked 4th out of 31 countries.

Committee and working group meetings are streamed via a range of online platforms (e.g., YouTube and FacebookLive). Furthermore, the government provides an efficient online search-engine for government documents (data.gov.uk). Meanwhile, the bi-annual Open Government Action Plans, which set goals and standards for open government in the United Kingdom, are negotiated in cooperation with the UK Open Government Network (OGN), a coalition of active citizens and civil society organizations.

Legislative Actors’ Resources

#22

Do members of parliament have adequate personnel and structural resources to monitor government activity effectively?

10
 9

The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for monitoring all government activity effectively.
 8
 7
 6


The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for monitoring a government’s major activities.
 5
 4
 3


The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for selectively monitoring some government activities.
 2
 1

The resources provided to the members of parliament are not suited for any effective monitoring of the government.
Parliamentary Resources
6
Members of parliament have relatively few resources at their disposal in terms of personnel capable of monitoring government activity. Parliamentary parties have few additional resources and therefore can provide little support. In addition, if a party is in government, a substantial proportion of its members of parliament will be (junior) members of the government and therefore not too keen to monitor themselves.

Parties in opposition are granted some public funds to hire additional researchers to fulfill their duties of controlling the government. But in terms of resources this is still not much compared to those the governing parties can call on through the ministerial bureaucracy.

The Dame Laura Cox Report 2018 exposed the widespread problem of bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff. In response, the House of Commons Commission swiftly announced measures to end this.

Citations:
European Parliament / Directorate-General for Research 2000: Comparison of organizational and administrative arrangements in EU national parliaments; http://edz.bib.uni-mannheim.de/daten/edz-ma/ep/00/budg110_en.pdf

Are parliamentary committees able to ask for government documents?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may ask for most or all government documents; they are normally delivered in full and within an appropriate time frame.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to ask for government documents are slightly limited; some important documents are not delivered or are delivered incomplete or arrive too late to enable the committee to react appropriately.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to ask for government documents are considerably limited; most important documents are not delivered or delivered incomplete or arrive too late to enable the committee to react appropriately.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not request government documents.
Obtaining Documents
8
The “Osmotherly Rules,” updated in October 2014, define the rights of select committees to obtain government documents. Although published in a Cabinet Office document, like many internal parliamentary rules, they are informal and cannot be legally challenged. However, documents are rarely held back and will thus be made available to committees. Only in very specific, pre-defined circumstances are documents withheld from select committees. 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 thus rarely come into play. Freedom of Information requests can additionally be used to obtain documents, but this does not include documents that affect national security or public interests. The media reinforce parliamentary scrutiny through their strong influence and the keen interest they take in committee findings that challenge the serving government.

Citations:
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/364600/Osmotherly_Rules_October_2014.pdf

Are parliamentary committees able to summon ministers for hearings?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may summon ministers. Ministers regularly follow invitations and are obliged to answer questions.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon ministers are slightly limited; ministers occasionally refuse to follow invitations or to answer questions.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon ministers are considerably limited; ministers frequently refuse to follow invitations or to answer questions.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not summon ministers.
Summoning Ministers
8
Ministers can be summoned to parliamentary committee hearings, but they cannot be forced to attend, because ministers have to be members of parliament or members of the House of Lords, and members of parliament cannot be forced to attend any meeting. However, the Osmotherly Rules recommend that ministers accept invitations to a hearing as an act of respectful courtesy, and thus ministers will usually accept an invitation to a hearing in a select committee. It would be headline news and damaging to the minister in question if they refused to appear before a committee on anything remotely controversial, although the answers given to committees can be bland. Ministerial questions in plenary sessions of parliament complement the work of committees and can be quite sharp in tone. The prime minister and key aides traditionally refuse to appear before select committees, but have appeared before the Liaison Committee, which is composed of the chairs of all the other committees.

Are parliamentary committees able to summon experts for committee meetings?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may summon experts.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon experts are slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon experts are considerably limited.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not summon experts.
Summoning Experts
10
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, though this would be exceptional. Committees also often employ experts as specialist advisers.

Committees may also summon actors involved in an issue that the committee is investigating. Examples include the examination of press barons in the context of the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking by journalists, of the entrepreneur Philip Green regarding the pension deficit of the BHS department store chain, and of Cambridge Analytica executives during the Information Commissioner’s investigation into the propagation of misinformation during the Brexit referendum campaign. Such hearings invariably attract extensive media coverage.

Are the task areas and structures of parliamentary committees suited to monitor ministries effectively?

10
 9

The match between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are well-suited to the effective monitoring of ministries.
 8
 7
 6


The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are largely suited to the monitoring ministries.
 5
 4
 3


The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are partially suited to the monitoring of ministries.
 2
 1

The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are not at all suited to the monitoring of ministries.
Task Area Congruence
7
Every government department is shadowed by a committee in the House of Commons (20 at the time of writing). The remit and number of committees adapts to reflect changes in the makeup of the government. House of Lords select committees focus on broader topics and are less directly matched to departmental task areas, but cover important areas. One example is the Science and Technology Select Committee, which in turn has subcommittees that cover specific topics, such as the implications of autonomous mobility or the possible meaning of the withdrawal from the European Union for universities’ staff policies.

However, the capacity of committees to monitor effectively is limited due to a lack of resources and limited continuity in membership (e.g., the House of Lords rules oblige members to be rotated off a committee after four years, although from direct observation of the work of its committees this does not seem to weaken them). Also, the number of reports they issue massively exceeds the time available on the floor of the House to debate them and, despite increased efforts by the committees to publicize them, not all reports achieve much media coverage. A new Brexit committee, with an above average membership and a careful balance of members to reflect conflicting views, was created after the 2016 referendum.

Media

#16

To what extent do media in your country analyze the rationale and impact of public policies?

10
 9

A clear majority of mass media brands focus on high-quality information content analyzing the rationale and impact of public policies.
 8
 7
 6


About one-half of the mass media brands focus on high-quality information content analyzing the rationale and impact of public policies. The rest produces a mix of infotainment and quality information content.
 5
 4
 3


A clear minority of mass media brands focuses on high-quality information content analyzing public policies. Several mass media brands produce superficial infotainment content only.
 2
 1

All mass media brands are dominated by superficial infotainment content.
Media Reporting
8
The main TV and radio stations in the United Kingdom – especially those like the BBC that operate under a public charter – provide an extensive array of high-quality news services. Government decisions feature prominently in this programming, and information and analysis on government decisions are both extensive and held to a high standard. There is substantial competition for viewers, in particular between the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4. In addition to news programs, all provide in-depth analysis programs on politics and policy in a variety of formats. The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 is well known for its highbrow political analysis and scrutiny, and often sets the tone for political debates. Newsnight is the flagship political-news program on TV.

The style of interview on these programs is often explicitly not deferential, and even quite confrontational – especially toward ministers. This is justified by the need to hold politicians and especially government ministers to account. Local radio and press also have a tangible influence within their localities and an increasing number of people resort to online services, most notably BBC Online, as a source of information on government.

Scandals both in the private sector (News of the World) and the public sector (BBC) may have cost some credibility but have so far had no recognizable influence on the functioning of the media system as a whole. Despite political pressure, The Guardian newspaper played a crucial role in the global surveillance disclosures of 2013 and was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for its efforts.

Parties and Interest Associations

#10

How inclusive and open are the major parties in their internal decision-making processes?

10
 9

The party allows all party members and supporters to participate in its decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and agendas of issues are open.
 8
 7
 6


The party restricts decision-making to party members. In most cases, all party members have the opportunity to participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and issue agendas are rather open.
 5
 4
 3


The party restricts decision-making to party members. In most cases, a number of elected delegates participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and issue agendas are largely controlled by the party leadership.
 2
 1

A number of party leaders participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and issue agendas are fully controlled and drafted by the party leadership.
Intra-party Decision-Making
6
A distinction needs to be made for all major parties between the election of the leader, on which party members have a say, and the selection of other personnel or decisions over major issues, for which there are generally much more restrictive procedures. The selection of parliamentary and local council candidates usually involves local party members. Annual party conferences notionally have a major role in settling policy positions, but in practice it is party leaders that have the most significant role.

The Conservative Party restricts decision-making to party members. In most cases, a number of selected delegates participate in the most important personnel and issue decisions. Central party influence over candidate selection has varied in recent years. David Cameron introduced a “priority list” with at least 50% women and significant representation from ethnic minorities, from which all target seats and Conservative-held seats were supposed to be selected. In the run-up to the 2010 election and in the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandal, this requirement was relaxed. After the general election, selection rules reverted to the post-2005 procedure. The party leader is elected by a poll of all party members, who choose from a shortlist of two candidates nominated by Conservative Party members of parliament.

The Labour Party also restricts decision-making to party members, although trade union influence remains strong. In most cases, a number of selected delegates participate in important personnel and issue decisions. Central party influence over local candidate selection has varied. Since 1988, there has had to be at least one woman on every shortlist. Since 2001, candidates require the approval of the central party’s head office prior to selection by their respective constituency Labour Party. Some political allies of the current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, favor a return to mandatory reselection, which would increase the influence of the left-wing within the party and is therefore highly contested. The Labour Party’s selection process for party leader was changed prior to the election of Jeremy Corbyn. Previously the old electoral college voted for the party leader. The college consisted of the Parliamentary Labour Party, constituency Labour parties, and the trade unions and affiliated organizations. Each group had one-third of the total vote. Since the procedural change, the choice is now based on a “one member, one vote” system. In addition, “registered supporters” can pay £3 to be entitled to vote as well. The winning candidate must secure at least 50% of the vote. Consequently, the election process can take several rounds, as the candidate with the fewest votes after each round drops out, and their second preferences are redistributed to the remaining candidates, until the winning candidate has reached the required quorum. However, Corbyn won more than 50% of the vote in the first round. While the new procedure massively increased party membership and participation in the leadership election, the distribution of indicated preferences between party members, members of affiliated organizations and registered supporters varies considerably. Registered supporters appear to be much further to the left of party members or members of affiliated organizations. Furthermore, in the wake of the Brexit referendum result and accusations that Corbyn had not campaigned effectively enough for “remain,” Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party was challenged. Though in a repetition of the previous Labour Party leadership election, the election resulted in another clear victory for Corbyn. However, this raised questions about the representativeness of the newly enlarged membership and its effect on party leadership elections. Nevertheless, after Labour surprisingly managed to win 40% in the 2017 general election (only 2.4 percentage points less than the Conservatives) and thereby discredit the claim it had become widely unelectable after the change in leadership, Jeremy Corbyn has stabilized his control of the party.

To what extent are economic interest associations (e.g., employers, industry, labor) capable of formulating relevant policies?

10
 9

Most interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 2
 1

Most interest associations are not capable of formulating relevant policies.
Association Competence (Employers & Unions)
7
Major business associations propose practical policy solutions, which are rooted in a realistic assessment of the circumstances in which they will be carried out. Until recently, the polarization between the major parties had diminished, especially in the field of socioeconomic policy matters. However, this is again widening. Even so, and especially with the Brexit decision, there is little incentive for business associations or trade unions to engage in wishful thinking if they want to be taken seriously in the national policy discourse. However, some economic interests do propose somewhat more provocative ideas.

The United Kingdom’s forthcoming withdrawal from the European Union has led to some more assertive stances both from business (concerned especially about threats to its EU market access and curbs on skilled immigrant workers) and unions (notably around protections deriving from EU rules). Some business groups are, however, more concerned about what they perceive as excessive regulatory burdens associated with EU membership. Although British business associations are divided over Westminster’s political ties to Brussels, access to the single market is at the very heart of Britain’s economic interest, namely their world leading financial and insurance industries. Overall, the influence of economic interest groups is relatively low-key, though not insubstantial. International businesses, such as Airbus and certain Japanese investors, have been vocal during the Brexit debates.

To what extent are non-economic interest associations capable of formulating relevant policies?

10
 9

Most interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 2
 1

Most interest associations are not capable of formulating relevant policies.
Association Competence (Others)
8
The United Kingdom has a tradition of close scrutiny of policy proposals. 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 and there are many NGOs that have had a tangible impact on policy thinking. Green interest groups in particular have helped to shape the policies of successive governments. There are vocal campaigners for rural interests, while both sides of the migration debate have been nourished by interest groups.

There is an abundance of NGOs with often-narrow policy agendas that tend to be pushed forward without much consideration of 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.

Independent Supervisory Bodies

#9

Does there exist an independent and effective audit office?

10
 9

There exists an effective and independent audit office.
 8
 7
 6


There exists an effective and independent audit office, but its role is slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


There exists an independent audit office, but its role is considerably limited.
 2
 1

There does not exist an independent and effective audit office.
Audit Office
10
The National Audit Office (NAO) is an independent office funded directly by parliament. Its head, the comptroller and auditor general, is an officer of the House of Commons. The NAO works on behalf of parliament and the taxpayer to scrutinize public spending and is accountable to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Does there exist an independent and effective ombuds office?

10
 9

There exists an effective and independent ombuds office.
 8
 7
 6


There exists an effective and independent ombuds office, but its advocacy role is slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


There exists an independent ombuds office, but its advocacy role is considerably limited.
 2
 1

There does not exist an effective and independent ombuds office.
Ombuds Office
8
The system of ombudsmen has been expanded over the last years. There are now four different ombudsmen that handle complaints about the civil service in each country within the United Kingdom, namely the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, Northern Ireland Ombudsmen and Commission for Local Administration in England. Further, there is a Parliamentary Health and Service Ombudsman (PHSO) who mainly deals with complaints concerning the National Health Service in England and a Housing Ombudsman who looks at complaints about social housing. However, all ombudsmen’s offices are limited in staff, resources and access to information. For example, ombudsmen have no formal power to see cabinet papers.

A parliamentary consultation in 2015 recommended the merger of ombudsmen into one integrated office of the Public Service Ombudsman (PSO). A draft of that bill was published by the government in December 2016, and was examined by the Housing, Local Government and Communities Committee in an inquiry published in March 2017. It has not, however, come into force as yet.

Citations:
https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/public-service-ombudsman

Is there an independent authority in place that effectively holds government offices accountable for handling issues of data protection and privacy?

10
 9

An independent and effective data protection authority exists.
 8
 7
 6


An independent and effective data protection authority exists, but its role is slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


A data protection authority exists, but both its independence and effectiveness are strongly limited.
 2
 1

There is no effective and independent data protection office.
Data Protection Authority
8
The United Kingdom was among the early adopters of personal data protection legislation. The Data Protection Act 1984 set standards for the use of digital data by the government, private businesses and individuals. Since 1998 (following the Data Protection Act 1998), the data protection regime has been shaped by EU law. The United Kingdom has adopted the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) into primary law (through the Data Protection Act 2018) meaning that the approach to data protection and information governance developed by the GDPR will be maintained after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

The central body authorized to enforce data protection legislation in the United Kingdom is the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The ICO is a non-departmental public body which reports directly to parliament and is sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The office has a wide array of data protection responsibilities defined by the Data Protection Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the General Data Protection Regulations, among other legislation. Given the devolution of powers, a similar function also operates in Scotland. The ICO publishes its actions and fines. The ICO recently received a lot of media attention for its inquiry into the business practices of the data processing firm Cambridge Analytica. However, the ICO has no authority over any security agency in the United Kingdom, which are rumored to be proactively collecting a wide-range of UK citizens’ personal data.

In October 2018, Elizabeth Denham, the UK Information Commissioner, was appointed the Chair of the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners.
Back to Top