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About this Project


What is the research about?

The global financial crisis has added impetus to the reconsideration of the shape of the British state. The search for a ‘smarter state’ that is smaller and cheaper places arm’s length bodies (ALBs) – non-departmental public bodies and other ‘quangos’- high on the political agenda due to their fiscal and policy significance (+900 bodies spending +13% government expenditure) (IfG, 2011) and problematic constitutional status (PASC, 2011). There are also +5,000 sub-national ‘partnerships’ and boards through whom policy delivery and spending are channelled (Sullivan and Skelcher, 2002), many adversely affected by the government’s deficit reduction strategy. The reshaping of this substantial area of public activity has major implications for the British state as it addresses global economic challenges. Our research asks whether and to what extent ALB reform will deliver the policy goal of a smaller, smarter, cheaper state, and what can be learnt from international comparisons.

ALBs present any government with a dilemma (Elgie, 2006; Thatcher and Stone Sweet, 2002). Delegation to operationally independent bodies incorporating expertise from beyond government enables technical, specialist and quasi-judicial public functions to be exercised in a non-partisan way, and to some extent insulates ministers from any political consequences. However, oversight by and accountability to the executive is reduced, creating a ‘decentred state’ (Bevir/Rhodes 2006) that generates steering, coordination and regulation problems and a popular rhetoric that ALBs are self-serving, inefficient, undemocratic, and subject to patronage.

Despite this, ALBs have proved attractive to UK governments and highly durable once created, surviving episodic campaigns for a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ (Hood, 1980; Skelcher, 1998). Now the picture is changing. In mid 2000s the Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly Government closed or reformed some of their ALBs (Flinders, 2011). In 2010, the UK Coalition Government announced plans to abolish, merge or reform several hundred ALBs, resulting in significant constitutional, political and operational challenges; and in March 2011 the Northern Ireland Executive agreed a review.

This new political commitment to ALB reform raises a number of questions:

  • What does this policy tell us about the shape of the British state into the 2010s?
  • How does ALB reform intersect with other policies, e.g. deficit reduction, big society?
  • How do ministers resolve the dilemma of ALBs as a policy instrument?
  • How can we explain the effect of this ALB reform relative to those in the past?
  • To what extent can political commitment overcome implementation problems?
  • How can we explain reduction of national ALBs alongside their continued use at sub-national level, e.g. academy boards; GP commissioning consortia?

Why this research matters

At the macro level the research will develop new ways of understanding the place of ALBs in the British state. It will move beyond constitutional and administrative analysis to engage with theoretical insights offered by the literatures on delegation, governance, institutionalism, and credible commitment (e.g. Bertelli, 2006, 2008; Flinders 2008, 2009), and also revisit research on bureaumetrics (Hood and Dunsire 1981) and state architecture (Dunleavy 1989). At the meso level the analysis of ALB reform as part of the ‘smarter state’ is important due to the UK’s global reputation as an innovator in public sector transformation. The micro level will help explain the challenges for government and civic actors in engaging with a state that is slimmer due to loss of functions, and where some activities have been reintegrated into ministries and direct political control.

How will the research be conducted?

Pillar 1: How can we explain the Coalition Government’s approach to reforming arm’s length bodies, and what are the implications for the future British state? (directed by Professor Flinders)

This focuses on the post 2010 General Election, including the ALB review, Public Bodies Bill, and subsequent work of the Cabinet Office’s ‘ALB Implementation Unit’. Irrespective of its outcome, the pace and scope of this reform makes it a unique episode within British governmental history. It has involved all government departments, a rebuilding of the Cabinet Office to strengthen its reform capacity, and considerable political will amongst ministers subject to lobbying to grant specific ALBs a reprieve. This pillar will track the reform process in detail.

Pillar 2: How can we explain the patterns of durability and reform of arm’s length bodies, and what are the implications for policy design? (directed by Professor Bertelli)

Over the past half-century, incoming UK governments of a new political persuasion have typically promised to reduce the number of ALBs. However pre-election desire for ‘quango culling’ has seldom translated into significant organisational termination, especially when changes at sub-national level are included (Skelcher et. al., 2005). The Coalition Government has a stronger commitment to realising this ambition, providing the basis for model building and hypothesis testing.

Pillar 3: What are the comparative patterns of arm’s length body reform cross-nationally and multi-level, and how does this help us explain and prescribe for the British case? (directed by Professor Skelcher)

The ‘quango problem’ is a global issue that governments in both developed and developing countries are seeking to manage (Pollitt et. al., 2004; Smullen, 2010; Verhoest et. al., 2011). Yet the comparative dimension (cross-nationally and intra-UK) is absent in UK debates on ALB reform. The research will identify and explain comparatively the status of ALBs, their durability and reform.