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In his monthly blog, Nigel Ball, Executive Director of the GO Lab looks at trust and accountability and what has changed during the Covid-19 era. He considers the 'new normal' and its implications. You can take this conversation further with Nigel via email nigel.ball@bsg.ox.ac.uk, or on twitter @nigel_ball.

Spending even relatively modest amounts of money in a UK local authority on something new from the private- or voluntary sector is usually not very easy. There must be a clearly articulated and compelling need. A business case must show why the money to address this need should be prioritised above other pressing needs. It must also show why the thing being bought offers good value compared to alternatives. Rules and regulations must be complied with at all stages. An assortment of managers must be consulted and any objections addressed. Approvals must be sought from senior Directors. The Cabinet of local politicians must provide sign-off, either directly or through a delegated authority. Then, at last, you can launch a procurement process.

In Covid-19, that has all changed. Whoever we speak to, stories abound of the usual laborious decision-making processes being cast aside. Protocols are being rewritten. People are not waiting for permission. There is an overwhelming preference for prompt and decisive action.

Many in public services seem to find this refreshing. Thing are getting done at a pace that would beyond the realms of imagination just a few months ago, and lives are being saved as a result. No-one is to be found arguing for more time to be spent understanding needs, for more information to be gathered, for more options to be considered, or for wider consultation.

Relying on a system based on trust 

The reason this new way of working is able to operate is because it is undergirded by trust. The spirit of decisiveness and expediency relies on people trusting each other to do the right thing to the best of their abilities, and to resist opportunism. 

In normal times, this is a not familiar operational mode in UK public services. The system is not built to rely on trust. It is highly centralised and built for control, in part because successive governments have seen this as the most reliable way to deliver on political promises. This means the power to allocate resources and determine consequences for others is more concentrated the nearer to the centre you get. In the gigantic organisations and delivery networks of public services, this power is wielded through regulations, inspections, dictats, targets, conditional funding, and naming-and-shaming. This set of tools is often bagged up and labelled (not entirely accurately) as 'New Public Management', a term that has become pejorative in some circles. Ensuring that delivery at the local level does not fall foul of this torrent of considerations is part of the reason why decisions normally take such a long time.

The idea that people left to their own devices might come up with a solution on their own, more quickly, and perhaps with a better outcome in the end, seems far-fetched in this context. Nonetheless, there is a lots of hope that the crisis might trigger a permanent change in this direction, after countless false starts (people have been declaring the death of New Public Management for years).

Is scrutiny the opposite of trust? 

But relying too much on trust has its limitations too. In an emergency, many citizens will excuse a few mistakes from officials, or a bit of money wasted, because they trust that those responsible did the best they could based on what they knew at the time, especially compared to the potential cost of indecisiveness. Even politicians seem to get a more relaxed ride, at least in the short term. Whether the public are prepared to extend this spirit of forgiveness to normal times, once the immediate threat to life and lifestyle has receded, is not yet tested in the current era. It is also debatable whether they should. Public scrutiny is an existential necessity for a democracy.

The idea of scrutiny can feel at odds with trust – why check up on people if you trust them? But as I have pointed out before, scrutiny exists because trust has not proved up to the task of protecting some important principles: consistent quality of services, the exposure and punishment of nefarious activity (such as theft and abuse), fairness, avoidance of waste. What we risk forgetting is that scrutiny does not need to be exercised by a distant centre, through bossy top-down finger-wagging. People could scrutinise each other, which might actually help to build trust. 

There is some evidence for this. A 2017 paper by Gwyn Bevan, Alice Evans and Sabina Nuti compares the British and Italian healthcare systems. Their analysis rejects the idea that you can simply trust people to get on with things and get the best outcome. That suggests that the modus operandi that is right for the epidemic is not right for normal times. But it equally rejects some of the top-down, centrally-driven management techniques that are so prevalent in UK public services. The authors suggest the best outcomes emerge from a system of 'reciprocal altruism', where people help one another to learn, powered by a system of reputational incentives. This system assumes that recognition in the eyes of one’s peers for a successful or cunningly achieved outcome will spur people on – as will the (perhaps even stronger) aversion to the embarrassment of failure, or of using means unjustified by ends (such as egregious payouts to private entities).

The missing link - transparency  

How to bring that system about? Our recent Emergency Responses and Government Outcomes peer learning group session on accountability might offer a clue. Several organisations including the Open Contracting Partnership and Centre for Public Scrutiny argued that a well-designed system of transparency was essential in the current emergency, and will be just as important during the ‘clear up’ afterwards. If officials know that their actions (and the consequences) will be made public, and that anyone could pick over them in future if they wanted to, they have a strong incentive to uphold the integrity of public service delivery and to learn how to do things well. They can also learn from others. Perhaps transparency is the missing link between trust and accountability.