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Governance in the UK

Previous: Parliamentary sovereignty and human rights

Governance in the UK is based on 2 principles: Weberian bureaucracy and new public management. Before we proceed to discover how the UK is governed, be aware that bureaucracy refers to an administration by non-elected officials. If you ‘Google’ bureaucracy, you’ll come across many negative connotations similar to ‘inefficient’; this is not what bureaucracy means for the purposes of this page.

Historically, much of the UK was bureaucratic. Max Weber is credited as a theorist who aptly described bureaucratic administration as being an effective organisation model in a complex society. Bureaucracy, or ‘Weberian bureaucracy’ involves a clear hierarchical order underpinned by regional authorities. This type of administration must of course by controlled by democratic institutions.

Abolishing bad bureaucracy

It is however true that bureaucratic governance in the UK acquired negative connotations over time, particularly with regards to the civil service. A civil servant is:

A servant of the Crown, other than the holders of political or judicial offices who is employed in a civil capacity and whose remuneration is paid wholly and directly out of monies voted by Parliament.

Before 1854, civil servants were appointed by ministers with no selection criteria, with significant consequences. In 1854, the Northcote-Trevelyn Report abolished corruption, amateurism and a number of other negative adjectives which were used to describe the running of and the people in the civil service with the introduction of a civil service code. Today, courtesy of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, much of the civil service is now formed under statute rather than prerogative power.

The efficiency of the UK’s bureaucratic administration was also increased following the Ibbs Report 1988, executive agencies replaced much of the civil service. Separate from governmental departments and with a Chief executive at their head, executive agencies had operational functions with targets to meet and were subject to review by Parliamentary select committees.

New public management

The creation of executive agencies was the first step towards the concept which has become known as ‘new public management’.


New public management had a number of purposes. With regards to the civil service, from the mid 1980s, there was a drive for a much more efficient civil service with the introduction of targets. One of the ways in which this was achieved was through privatisation of many of the country’s major services. British Rail, BT and the utility companies are some of the results of privatisation, where the government heavily invested in them, before gradually selling off the shares until independence was achieved. For services not entirely privatised, ‘contracting out occurred’, whereby compulsory competitive tendering occurred. In house services would have to compete against external contractors to ensure that they were competitively priced, often losing contracts to private companies. New public management also introduced internal markets such as education league tables and split the NHS into a purchaser and a provider. Finally, new public management also encouraged private finance initiatives; borrowing from private organisations with repayment schemes which would affect subsequent political parties, not the current party. National debt, anyone?


New public management was a way of creating an economic model of the state. The state was a provider and the citizen a consumer. There are a few issues with this system though. There can become a target obsession and people don’t want to be treated as consumers when part of a society. However the intent was to create a more efficient and accountable system of administration and to enhance the state’s connection with its citizen. Efficiency in the short run is apparent. Long buy alprazolam online reviews term however, the consequences are being felt.

‘Big society’

The most recent development in UK governance followed the 2010 election. The resulting coalition adopted the conservative policy of creating a ‘big society’. The concept is that people should not view the government as the one manager of the country, rather there should be many, more localised departments who are each responsible for every citizen. It attempts to remove the idea of the citizen as the consumer.


The purpose of a big society is to empower communities and encourage their participation. What this means is that the government transferred some of their powers to local governments, published government data and supported co-operatives, charities and social enterprises.


The concept sounds attractive, closing the gap between the controller and the controlled. It means that the citizen has an apparently more active role in society and local governments are empowered. However, this also means that the government can shed itself of much of its responsibility and accountability. Perhaps it is cheaper, rather than better.

Governance accountability

On the subject of accountability, it is worth noting some of the methods in which government can be scrutinised. There are 3 ways in which government can be scrutinised: legally, politically, and quasi-judicially.

Judicial review is the primary method of legal scrutiny in the UK. Whilst this will be discussed in much more extensive detail later in Public Law, it may be outlined here. Judicial review is the legal way of challenging executive decision-making. Courts ask whether the decision in question was made lawfully or unlawfully. Any person or body that exercises governmental power is subject to judicial review, including local authorities, governmental departments and even courts and regulatory bodies. Executive prerogative powers were also challenged in the GCHQ case. Private citizens are not subject to judicial review, nor are non-executive functioning corporations and public bodies with no connection to governmental power, such as the Football Association. Judicial review ensures that executive power is exercised in a way compatible with Parliament.

Political/executive scrutiny

In our constitution, it is said that it is for parliament to hold the executive to account. This is done through select committees, ombudsmen and public enquiries.

Select committees are groups of backbench MPs who examine governmental departments with regards to expenditure, administration and policy. They decide themselves what to examine and have the power to send for documents, records and people. They carry out systematic and in-depth enquiries, but have limited powers: they cannot compel the attendance of witnesses, for example. They are also made up of MPs who may have their own agendas.

The ombudsman, responsible to parliament, investigates citizens’ complaints of maladministration against governmental departments. The ombudsman has no power to question the merits of a decision if there has been no maladministration (that’s what judicial review is for); instead the ombudsman attempts to prevent administration being given descriptions such as bias, neglect, delay and incompetence. Complaints must be filtered by MPs first. The ombudsman has strong powers of investigation, and makes recommendations. These are usually implemented, but if they are not, they are reported to Parliament.

Public inquiries enable the investigation of national disasters or scandals to find out why they occurred and who is responsible. They are the result of the Inquiries Act 2005. They provide in-depth investigations, but have very specific terms of reference.

For the smaller matters, the Freedom of Information Act increases executive transparency and provides access to information. However, requests are subject to exemptions and ministerial veto, so perhaps there is no real transparency.

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