Cracking the code: getting the relationship between departments and arm’s-length bodies right

Written by Susanna Smith on 16 March 2017 in Opinion

Research by the Public Chairs’ Forum (PCF), Association of Chief Executives (ACE) and Institute for Government (IfG) is to review the impact of the Code of Good Practice for partnerships between departments and arm’s-length bodies (ALBs).

Across the public sector there are more than 450 public bodies that spend almost £200bn a year, and employ a quarter of a million staff.  How well these bodies work with government departments has a big impact on how effective government is.  The government is trying to improve these relationships, and now research is being launching into how this is going. 

The Cabinet Office’s new Code of Good Practice for partnerships between departments and ALBs offers a unique opportunity to redefine their relationship. The code is a response to the findings of the NAO review and subsequent Public Accounts Committee hearing into the oversight of ALBs, which highlighted the lack of consistency across government. This included examples of unclear accountabilities and responsibilities, cost ineffective arrangements due to disproportionate oversight and missed opportunities to share skills and expertise and maximise the quality of services delivered. The code also builds upon research by the Institute for Government on ALBs.

PCF, ACE and IfG welcome the code’s four principles of purpose, assurance, value and engagement for ALBs, and the drive to bring ‘greater consistency’ to this relationship through the adoption of these ‘common principles.’

It is particularly encouraging for PCF and ACE members, who lead ALBs, to see the emphasis in the code on ‘effective partnership’ and a relationship that is proportionate to the potential risks, balanced against the benefits of autonomy for the ALB and tailored to the department and ALB’s objectives. As civil service chief executive John Manzoni stated last year, departments and ALBs need to be seen as ‘a total delivery system.’ We agree that to achieve the government’s overall objectives there must be collaborative working and greater shared understanding of each other’s purpose, skills and expertise.

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In support of the code, PCF, ACE and IfG are conducting a survey that uses the principles and standards to assess current relationships between departments and ALBs, and see how they can be embedded in practice. We have sent the survey to all chairs and chief executives chief executives of public bodies asking them a variety of questions based on the principles of the code to see how their relationships currently compares. This survey will also be re-distributed after 9-12 months to test the impact of the code over time. The analysis will take into account the wide variety and size of ALBs, from small advisory committees, to large non-ministerial departments.  There are over 450 ALBs providing a variety of vital services to the public and we want to hear from all of them.

Of course, there are two sides to this story and we will also be reviewing the departmental perspective.  Both contributions from departments and ALBs will be confidential and anonymised before publication.

The opportunities that arise from an effective working partnership are clear: regular engagement and assurance from the ALB can allow the department to grant the appropriate level of autonomy to fulfil its purpose, whilst avoiding costly and inefficient use of time and duplication of work due to disproportionate oversight. Likewise, as the government faces fiscal pressures, there is no doubt of the benefits of tapping into the readily available skills and expertise within their ALBs and departments through strong partnerships.

The code recognises there ‘is no one size fits all model’ for this relationship. After all, ALBs work at varying degrees of distance from government; including non-ministerial departments, executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies and within these broad classifications, individual bodies require a different working arrangements tailored to their purpose and objectives.  Nevertheless, our work will highlight useful practices for achieving effective partnership across the whole ALB and departmental landscape, and in some cases what has worked less well and where they may be areas for improvement. We will be publishing our first round of analysis around the end of May 2017 and the final report will be expected in Autumn 2018. The study is being conducted with the support of Cabinet Office, but is independent of government.  We look forward to reporting our findings to CSW readers in the coming months.

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Susanna Smith
About the author

Susanna Smith is the membership, communications and research officer at the Public Chairs' Forum


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