Ministerial responsibility, policy design and implementation

At a conference in the IPA recently there was some talk about changes in how ministers and civil servants are held accountable, and for what they are held accountable. The traditional doctrine of ministerial responsibility, set out in the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924, hold the minister to be the Corporation Sole, so s/he is legally responsible for every action of the department. This is obviously not very realistic and few would subscribe to the view of the UK Health Secretary Aneurin Bevan that the sound of a bedpan falling in his local hospital should reverberate in the Palace of Westminster.

Ministers cannot be expected to be responsible for micro management details, nor would it be desirable. Nor is it how things are. Senior civil servants are now responsible for the management of departments, and are the accounting officers for them. Many executive functions have been hived off and so the minister is not responsible which leads to problems about how the public service should be made accountable for actions.

The suggestion in the conference at the IPA was that the role of policy making and executive functions should be separated, and allow civil servants be directly accountable to the Oireachtas for their roles. Then the civil and public service might be more accountable for failures of implementation and the ministers for failures of policy. Ministers might then have small, focused policy making units that can concentrate on developing good policy. Good idea, eh?

Not really. This assumes that policy making and implementation (or the administration of policy – see the clip above) are separate. They aren’t. Ministers have a tendency to complain that there was nothing wrong with a policy, it was just a problem implementing it. Successive ministers for justice remain convinced that the goal of drug free prisons is a good one, and blame the fact that it is not achieved on failures of implementation. They don’t see that it asks people who possibly benefit from having drugs in prisons to implement it. It also fails to see that the strict monitoring of prisoners required might have a negative impact on relations between prisoners and prison officers.

No policy is any good if it cannot be implemented, and how will the policy makers know whether something is implementable if they don’t have experience of implementation?  It seems in this there is an assumption that policy making is a science and implementation is a technology. There is a ‘right’ policy, and then it’s just a matter of getting the techs to put it into practice. But they are both technologies. How something will be implemented is central to the design.

If our concern is road deaths and we think that reducing speed on the roads will achieve a reduction in road deaths, it’s not much of a policy if the policy maker just says ‘the policy is to reduce the speed of vehicles’. S/he will need to think about how that’s achieved. This will be a policy instrument. So it could be to decrease the speed limit. But again s/he will need to think about how likely this will be effective. Who will enforce it? How will it be enforced? What resources will be allocated to this? Without providing the right policy instrument the policy is just an aspiration.

If we know that speed limits are widely ignored and unenforceable then there’s no point in policy makers complaining that it was a failure of implementation. Implementation must be built into policy design.

Policy makers who do not consider how a policy will be implemented or the likely reaction of those they expect to implement are poor policy makers. Taking ministers further away from implementation by making them more clearly not accountable for executive functions could have the effect of making them poorer policy makers.

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