12 November 2012

Resignations ‘as a matter of honour’ have been in vogue over the last few days.

In New Zealand, the Minster of Labour with responsibility for workplace health and safety, and in particular mine safety, has resigned following the publication of the Royal Commission report into the Pike River Mine explosion.  “At the end of the day, 29 men died under my watch…I value my integrity and I thought it was the right and honourable thing to do.”

The Director of the CIA has resigned, confessing that he “… showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair …. such behaviour is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours…”

And the Director-General of the BBC has resigned because of poor management of investigations into and reporting on high profile paedophilia incidents involving the BBC.  He said that  “I have decided that the honourable thing to do is to step down.”

The Commons Liaison Committee report Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers was issued on 8 November 2012.  That day, content relevant to the accountability of Ministers to Parliament was added to a revision of the House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/31 Individual ministerial responsibility. That paper also picks up a number of the submissions to the Lords Constitutional Committee on Accountability which is to report before the end of 2012;  in particular the remark of the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee about the continuing accountability to the Public Accounts Committee of Ministers and Departmental Heads after transferring to other responsibilities.  This reflects a move beyond traditional views on ministerial responsibility – and ultimately when resignation is expected.

The circumstances at Pike River, and the mismanagement in the last month of information by the Accident Compensation Corporation and the Ministry of Social Development highlight the evolving application of Westminster traditions in New Zealand.

Professor Bob Gregory wrote about Ministerial accountability in the New Zealand setting in 2007. His paper featured a Minister’s observation after a fatal incident involving the Ministry of Works in the 1940s;  “I may be responsible but I am not to blame”, seems now to have become: “I am neither responsible nor am I to blame”. Prof Gregory noted that where administrative mistakes or errors of judgment occur, it has become common for Ministers rather than to accept responsibility for the administration of a portfolio that Ministerial office entails, not only hand the responsibility to chief executives for defending their departments actions in public, but also publicly criticise them in the process.

Prof Gregory pointed out that there is a misunderstanding about the principles of responsibility and accountability in politics and public management. Accountability is about answering to someone else for the actions that one has taken or not taken. Responsibility is about issues of moral agency and choice, often in the face of conflicting duties of obligation. Being responsible for some undesirable outcome is to be held culpable in that it would not have happened but for one’s actions, or one’s failure to act. People are blameworthy when they’re negligent in fulfilling some duty of obligation, in failing to act reliably or in a trustworthy manner. It is in fact possible for someone to be fully accountable, yet totally irresponsible.

It appears that the CIA Director and the BBC Director General were responsible and have accepted that they are accountable for their actions.  The Minister of Labour was not responsible for the Pike River Mine disaster but, being accountable, has resigned.