A code of practice to help reset the relationships between government departments and their arm’s-length bodies has had a “limited impact”, according to research by leadership associations and the Institute for Government.
The Public Chairs Forum, the Association of Chief Executives and the Institute for Government think tank have urged the Cabinet Office and other departments to do more to make sure people know about the code, after a survey found awareness was patchy.
The Code of Good Practice, published by the Cabinet Office in February 2017, aimed to improve transparency and clarify relationships between government departments and their arm’s-length bodies. It said ALBs must be given "the autonomy to deliver effectively", but the host department's board and directors should have "an appropriate overview" of its work, "proportionate to its purpose, risk and required degree of independence".
Only 37% of the respondents from the 129 public bodies surveyed said they thought awareness of the code was high within their organisation. Awareness was especially low in the Foreign Office, where half of the respondents from its arm’s-length bodies said they strongly disagreed that people in their organisation were aware of the code. The remaining half neither agreed nor disagreed.
In the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, 40% said people in their organisations didn’t know about it, while awareness was highest in the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, with positive responses from around two-thirds of respondents in both departments.
This is the second time the IfG, ACE and the PCA have run the survey. The first took place a month after the code was published and this most recent report shows a year on, many of the same issues remain.
“While the areas with positive results have been broadly maintained and improvements in cross-government working have been reported, the overall picture is fairly stagnant and awareness of the code across government is poor,” the report said.
“Inconsistency across government departments, lack of transparency regarding performance, the inefficiency of the public appointments process and high levels of ministerial turnover are still barriers to productive relationships.”
The survey also revealed mixed opinions about the code's effectiveness. Nearly 60% of respondents had no opinion on whether it has had a positive impact on the relationship between their organisation and sponsoring department.
The majority of staff in Department for Work and Pensions ALBs were ambivalent about the code's impact – only 10% said they thought it has had a positive impact, with the remainder expressing no opinion. The breakdown was similar in the Department for Education, but the 10% with a positive opinion was matched by a corresponding number with a negative one.
Opinions across other departments were more polarised. In the Foreign Office, half of respondents agreed that the code has had a positive impact and half disagreed.
The survey also showed mixed results when it came to seeing the goals of the code realised. The proportion of ALBs that use performance agreements has decreased slightly since last year, as has the proportion of those agreements that are publicly available, which has fallen to less than half of those surveyed.
This is concerning as “not being transparent about performance makes it harder for parliament to hold public bodies to account”, the report said.
The majority of respondents said they felt their body’s purpose, objectives and relationship with government were transparent, including 100% of respondents in the Cabinet Office, DWP, the FCO and HMT.
However, there has been a swing away from public bodies feeling their objectives are aligned with that of their department. The proportion of respondents saying the two are aligned has decreased since 2017, while the proportion that disagreed has risen.
According to the report, ALB leaders are especially concerned about “insufficient engagement" by their department over Brexit preparations.
"The principles of the code are still relevant and are an excellent starting point for establishing effective partnerships between public bodies and government departments. However, the Cabinet Office and other government departments must embrace the opportunity to spread awareness of the code," the report said.
A government spokesperson said: "The Code of Good Practice was developed to provide a proportionate, principles-based framework to support close working.
"The code is still relatively new and we will continue to work with arms length bodies and departments to embed these standards and principles."