Have you attempted to hold a local authority or public service body to account over their actions or failure to act appropriately?
Are you getting nowhere with your complaints?
Do you feel powerless?
Are you one of the many who no longer trust government, local government etc?
Have you been badly let down by any government funded body, or by any government organisations, including Local Authorities, Planning Departments, the National Health Service, the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman?
Do you have bags full of correspondence all to no avail?
If you answered YES to any of the above you are NOT alone!
If you have made reasonable, logical complaints against any public service body and have been stonewalled at every turn, you may wish to meet like minded people who understand your despair.
Get in touch with Accountability Scotland.
Many people have disputes with Scotland’s public service bodies (for example health authorities, local authorities, education authorities and the Scottish Government). Often these disputes are resolved with the help of local councillors or MSPs. Failing that, the complaint might possibly be resolved satisfactorily with the help of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO). However, it is of particular concern to us that only a small proportion of complaints submitted to the SPSO are fully investigated. Thus, in the year 2009/10, only 4% of submissions accepted as complaints reached the stage of investigation and even here satisfaction rates are also low. For example, for the year 2010-2011, according to the official statistics based on questionnaires sent to individuals whose cases where closed, only 50% of these complainants expressed satisfaction with the service they received. Actual dissatisfaction (40% overall) was especially marked in regard to local authorities and housing associations. Many complaints are dismissed for arbitrary reasons, at the SPSO’s discretion, and a large proportion of complainants see the SPSO as lacking impartiality.
The SPSO should stand out as a guardian of integrity within Scottish public service bodies, but it does not do so. Nor does it have real power to effect improvements, even when it rules in favour of a complainant. The SPSO is not subject to independent scrutiny.
Some MSPs are well aware of the failings of the SPSO, but others, reassured by the SPSO itself, need to be persuaded. This is why a number of petitions to the Scottish parliament regarding the SPSO have been summarily dismissed.
Amongst our wider aims, our primary objective at the moment is therefore the elevation of the SPSO to its proper status of guardian of the people.
Our Case and Aims
Accountability Scotland aims to improve democracy and administrative justice by campaigning for transparent public accountability in Scottish governance. An ultimate focus is to obtain governmental regulations to enforce improvements in governance at all levels in public services to achieve effective, open and fair systems of public information provision, consultation, appraisal and decision-making, with full accountability of public servants to the people of Scotland.
Why is this necessary?
- The Democratic Deficit. In Scotland today, elected representatives are often ruled by unaccountable officials (civil servants and others) who are secure in their jobs. (Generally MSPs and Councillors do not have time to research things themselves.) Also public consultations are frequently seen as a nuisance by officials and a waste of time by the public. This Scottish democracy deficit was recognised by Andrew Carnegie in the late 19th Century who stated: “The great error of your country is that things are just upside down. You look to your officials to govern you instead of you governing them”. He was appalled, since his American Constitution and democratic procedures were based on the Scottish political philosophers, and officials in the USA are accountable public servants. This situation has not changed.
- The SPSO. The creation of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) was seen as a way of protecting the public from maladministration and bureaucratic abuse, but this has proved to be largely ineffectual. (See our website for Accountability Scotland’s analysis of evidence from the SPSO’s publications.). There is ‘window dressing’ of improved democracy and social justice in having an Ombudsman and other organisations which are supposed to protect the public from maladministration by public bodies. A very low percentage of complaints to the SPSO is addressed to complainants’ satisfaction, with many being dismissed without full scrutiny. Most of the five principles which the Crerar report said should govern the application and use of external scrutiny have to a large extent been flouted by the SPSO. These are: “public focus; independence; proportionality; transparency; accountability”. Currently the Ombudsman is not being held to account for the deficiencies in regard to these principles. The problem is that there is no external monitoring of the effectiveness and quality of the rulings.
- There is a bureaucrat self-protection culture among officials in public bodies. In dealing with officials who are supposed to scrutinise complaints about public bodies, people can have a Kafka-esque experience - with bureaucrat protecting bureaucrat using a mass of ‘white-wash’ correspondence which can go on interminably. Accountability Scotland is concerned for those people who are worn down by this tactic, as in correspondence with the SPSO, council officials and some regulators and inspectors. Some people have been driven to suicide.
- An example of this ‘self-protection’ culture comes from complaints about the actions of councils, where the SPSO encourages its staff to develop ‘buddy’ relationships with their counterparts in the councils. Perhaps for this reason, only a small minority of complaints against councils are supported by the SPSO, suggesting a lack of impartiality.
- Officials Wield the Power. Currently many perceive that democracy stops at the ballot box. The bureaucrats rule OK, with politicians probably having less control than they think over decision-making. This applies for example with the recommendations received by ministers from Reporters on planning applications whilst other individual Regulators like School Inspectors wield enormous power and are supported by Government ministers, regardless of the validity of a complaint - sometimes ruining lives of head-teachers. Open appraisal and consultation is required before wielding the big stick.
- Politicians often don't have the power they are elected to have, because they are dependent on what the officials feed them – and many seem unaware of it. For instance the officials often inundate the politicians with paper, giving totally insufficient time for perusal and analysis and then solve the politicians’ problem by presenting a simple summary report. This happens at all levels, e.g. with council planning committees and with reports to Government ministers and Parliament. Summary reports are read and the proposals of officials voted through with stamp of approval.
- Why bother to vote? It is a travesty of democracy when less than 30% vote in local elections. The full job security of officials and lacks of accountability give absolute power which, can lead to maladministration or even corruption. Moreover, to get promotion in such organizations you keep your nose clean and ‘do not see’, let alone report, malpractice. Public confidence is eroded, so people ‘give up’ and see no sense in participating in ‘consultation exercises’ as on council orders. Such ‘consultations’ are frequently so brief and limited they are a farce. So, why bother to express an opinion or vote, especially in local elections? We thus have public apathy and demoralization. Accountability Scotland tries to get MSPs to effect a change in the system so that Councillors and the people can have more control.
- The Petitions Committee, The Petitions Committee is a fine idea in principle, but often proves ineffectual, with only a few minutes for discussion and with inadequate information provided for members. Moreover, we are aware of a petition, accepted and passed for action to a government agency, which has been put on ice for five years and effectively forgotten: who is held accountable?
- The Campaign for Systemic Change. There is a need to make Scottish politicians and officials aware of the undemocratic nature of aspects of the system described above. Whilst much of the existing system is good in principle, it is naïve in expecting integrity at all levels. The only way to achieve this is to ensure systems of accountability are in place. Those members of the public with a social conscience and those who are isolated in their misery in dealing with officials must get together to change the attitudes of our ‘rulers’ and force the institution of systems which ensure officials behave as public servants as in the USA. Accountability Scotland provides that forum and the action team.
- The Way Forward. Most importantly, democracy can be improved by the Scottish Government instituting new regulations to ensure meaningful consultation processes as on Planning Applications and Road Traffic Orders. To a large extent ‘consultations’ are seen by the public as ineffectual, because of inadequacies in publicity, information provision and time allowed. Accountability Scotland calls for governmental regulations to enforce such improvements, together with systems to ensure transparent accountability in all public bureaucracies. Such measures would then minimise the number of complaints sent to the SPSO.
The current Scottish Government has a long term in office – a great opportunity to improve democracy. Hopefully Accountability Scotland can influence it to help bring about transparent public accountability and so Administrative Justice and a true democracy.