Top tips: How to improve the relationship between departments and arm’s-length bodies

Written by Susanna Smith on 27 July 2017 in Opinion

New research by the Public Chairs’ Forum (PCF), Association of Chief Executives (ACE) and Institute for Government (IfG) highlights the need for greater consistency, strategic collaboration, transparency, and better cross-government working to improve partnerships between arm’s-length bodies (ALBs) and government departments. Here’s what can be done.

Cabinet Office Photo: PA

Effective delivery of our public services is impacted directly by how well arm’s-length bodies (ALBs) are working with their partner departments. There are 450 public bodies in the United Kingdom that spend almost £200bn a year and employ a quarter of a million people – it is essential that these are managed in the most efficient and effective manner and that ALBs are granted the appropriate level of autonomy to fulfil their purpose.

PCF, ACE and IfG’s new joint publication “Cracking the code of good conduct: a survey of the relationship between public bodies and government departments" benchmarks how ALBs currently judge their relationship with their department.  We asked ALBs a series of questions based around the four principles of the Code of Good Practice for these partnerships, published earlier this year by Cabinet Office – purpose, assurance, value and engagement. 


Overall, ALBs reported largely positive working partnerships with their departments and there were no departments that stood out as significantly better or worse at fostering these relationships. Nevertheless, our report identifies the need for greater consistency and some key opportunities for more efficient ways of working. These include:

More strategic collaboration

Across the public body landscape, our survey found there is mutual understandings of purpose and risk, and clear processes for reviewing governance arrangements and sharing information. However, beyond these formal processes there are many missed opportunities to work more collaboratively and effectively by sharing skills and experience across government and avoiding cross-departmental duplicative work. As government faces fiscal pressures and the complexities of Brexit, there is no doubt of the great value in using the wealth of knowledge within public bodies – particularly drawing on these skills in the early stages of policy formation. 

Greater transparency

The results also raise important questions over transparency and public accountability. We feel that more ALBs should be using performance agreements, and these should be made publicly available. Accountability to the public is equally as important as accountability to central government – because they are the services users and the greatest interaction with government is through public services.  Therefore both departments and ALBs should work together to provide assurance for the services provided.

Sponsorship reform

Our report highlights concerns surrounding the effectiveness of the sponsorship function. As the code reinforces, proportionate oversight is essential, however we found evidence that within departments there is not always clear understanding of purpose of the ALB across all levels of staff and there are often challenges to attract and retain talent to the sponsorship teams.

More effective cross-government working

Last year civil service chief executive John Manzoni called for ALBs to be seen as a part of a ‘total delivery system’ of the department’s objectives. However, results from the survey demonstrate how barriers to effective partnerships at times transcend the direct public body-department relationship, notably as a result of central government controls. Therefore, an important part of developing partnerships between ALBs and central government is ensuring that public reform agendas are made not only through strategic engagement between departments and their partner ALBs, but also Cabinet Office and the Treasury.

Next steps

As we have outlined throughout our report, the code [first published in February] presents a good opportunity to improve the relationships between ALBs and departments. Currently, most public bodies have a strong understanding of their purpose and risk, but often do not have the capacity to forge strong partnerships to deliver services or have meaningful input into government policy in a timely manner. These are the types of challenges we hope to see overcome when we re-distribute the survey in 2018 to test the impact of the code over time. We will then publish a comparative analysis of both surveys.

About the author

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

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The contact details for the Civil Service World editorial team are available on our About Us page.

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