This spring, I was pleased to begin a three year project with Matt Flinders (University of Sheffield) and Chris Skelcher (University of Birmingham) that will analyze the UK Coalition Government’s major reform of ‘arm’s length bodies’ (ALBs – often called ‘quangos’). Quangos are a frequent focus for public, political and media criticism, regarded as unaccountable, wasteful and self-serving. Yet they are also indispensible to modern government, preventing ministers from becoming overloaded, bringing expert advice and management to complex policy issues, and undertaking regulatory and quasi-judicial tasks that need to be politically independent. I have long been interested in these bodies and have analyzed patterns of discretion in Dutch and transparency in British ALBs among a series of papers on the topic. It is a great privilege to be working with Matt and Chris on this project, as well as with our research fellows Kate Dommett and Katie Tonkiss.
The study asks a number of questions including:
- Why have arm’s length bodies been so durable in the face of political and public hostility?
- What are the consequences of reforming arm’s length bodies for ministers, Parliament, civil servants, and those organisations and individuals who use their services?
- Are there other ways in which delegation of executive, regulatory, quasi-judicial or advisory authority might be designed, and what is the international experience?
As the project unfolds, I will offer some reflections and results here.