Earlier this year CAS undertook to research how accountable public services in Scotland are. This report presents the findings of that work.
In 2016 Scotland was selected to join the Open Government Partnership (‘OGP’), an international collaboration of 90 governments across the world committed to three key principles: openness, transparency and public involvement. The Scottish Government, together with civic society partners, has developed a National Action Plan which includes a commitment “to improve the accountability of public services”.
As part of this work, CAS has undertaken research to understand how services – from energy companies to local authorities and the NHS – are held accountable for their actions. We explored how confident people were in taking action to hold services to account and the barriers which might prevent people doing so. We found that:
- Almost three quarters of respondents felt confident they could access information on public services, while more than a third felt confident they could become involved in a decision-making process.
- Of those who had contacted public services, the most common reason for doing so was to make a complaint or to express a concern.
- Those least confident overall in approaching services were aged under 25, or unemployed.
- Half of respondents felt confident that they knew their rights in relation to raising concerns, while a little under one-third felt the same regarding appealing a decision.
- In general, knowledge of regulatory bodies was poor, with a quarter of respondents having not heard of any.
- When asked what ‘accountability’ meant to them, the most common responses were ‘responsibility’, ‘transparency’, and being ‘answerable’.
People who had concerns about services but who hadn’t taken action to express them often said they did not know who to contact or feared they would not be taken seriously. Other barriers to complaining included fear of repercussions and a lack of confidence in communicating. Few people had a clear understanding of what to expect when making a complaint or of what they could do if they were dissatisfied with a response.
CAS believes that this work shows that regulatory bodies could do more to raise their profile and inform the general public as to their roles. There is a need for public services to provide clear information on how the public can engage with them, particularly when people wish to raise a concern or question decisions made. This information should be made available both on and off line, should be in plain English and should keep the use of technical terms to a minimum.
Where people do express concerns about public services, it is important that responses are clear and transparent and that public services take responsibility for actions they have taken. When making a complaint or expressing a concern, people should understand when they should expect a response and receive clear explanations of what to do if they are unhappy with the response received.
Related work on Scotland's National Open Government Action Plan 2018-20: Commitment 4 Improving Access to Accountability of Public Services: Peoples & Stakeholder Engagement Final Report and Recommendations July 2020 is also available here: https://www.gov.scot/publications/scotlands-second-national-open-government-action-plan-2018-20-commitment-4-improving-access-accountability-public-services-public-stakeholder-engagement/