Academic tale of audit overload

April 17, 1998

Huw Richards on the Political Studies Association conference

ACCOUNTABILITY is one of the buzzwords of the 1990s, widely acknowledged as a good thing.

But you can have too much of a good thing, suggest the Strathclyde University team of Brian Hogwood, David Judge and Murray McVicar. As part of their work for the Economic and Social Research Council's Whitehall programme, they have interviewed senior staff in more than 40 government and non-departmental agencies or quangos.

At the conference, Professor Hogwood pointed to three problems: overloading, inappropriateness and repetition. These were often difficult to resist. "It is often the case that no request for information, audit or review is inappropriate in itself, but the accumulation of demands can be very damaging," he said. "In small agencies in particular they can take so much time that senior staff are distracted from the core functions of their job."

His department's recent assessments gave him first-hand experience of some of the worries. "In one year we underwent research assessment, teaching quality assessment and had to prove ourselves fit to teach postgraduates. That was the year after we'd gone through a quality audit."

Inappropriateness arises where the reviewing body applies a standard procedure to all the bodies it is looking at. This can create a mismatch with the criteria, priorities and purposes of some bodies.

For repetition, Professor Hogwood cites the example of one agency, which was reviewed twice in quick succession by different bodies wishing to assess its research excellence.

The researchers did not find any evidence of resistance to disclosure among the people subjected to accountability.

"It was accepted that ministers have a right to ask for meetings and for information, although you did have the bizarre case of the prison service, which has at times been subject to almost daily demands," he said. "It was also recognised that MPs have a right to ask questions, although there was some concern about the volume and the costs of providing answers."

Much more criticism was applied to National Audit Offices. "It was felt that there was very little consideration for the costs to departments of producing the materials demanded," he said.

Professor Hogwood believes that his team's research casts some doubt on the stakeholder concept, not least because multiple accountability can mean that no one is really responsible. The problem will not easily be combated, but "one extra review that might well be welcomed would be a review of the overall burdens imposed by accountability requirements", he added.

Research papers relating to this page can be found on The THES Internet site: http://www.thesis.co.uk

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