Research & Publications

Departments’ oversight of arm’s-length bodies

November 04 2016

Departments’ oversight of arm’s-length bodies

The Public Accounts Committee reviewed and responded to the National Audit Office's report earlier this year, taking evidence from the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Cabinet Office on the oversight of arm’s-length bodies, They summarise the report as follows:

Government departments now have more than 460 ‘arm’s-length bodies’, through which they spend around £250 billion a year. Departments rely on their arm’s-length bodies to deliver important functions and services to the public. Yet over the years there has been no consistent rationale for deciding what is best done through an arm’slength body and what is best done directly by departments themselves. The Cabinet Office recognises that the resultant population of arm’s-length bodies is “an accident of history”.

The quality of oversight by departments of their arm’s-length bodies is inconsistent. They do not always have the information to understand how their bodies are performing and it is not clear that oversight arrangements are always proportionate to the relative risks and opportunities of particular bodies. While we heard some examples of effective oversight, there needs to be much more shared understanding of what works, with learning both within departmental groups and across departmental boundaries. Departments are also missing opportunities to improve services by capitalising on the operational experience and know-how of their arm’s-length bodies when developing policy. There is no one size fits all approach to departmental oversight, but the Cabinet Office needs to use its position at the centre of Government to ensure that departments improve the way they manage their business through arm’s-length bodies.

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Departments’ oversight of arm’s length bodies: a comparative study

July 05 2016

Departments’ oversight of arm’s length bodies: a comparative study

The National Audit Office looked at four departments that oversee a large number of ALBs: Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, Ministry of Justice, Department for Environment, Department for Food & Rural Affairs, and Department for Culture, Media & Sport.

They found there is no collective understanding of what type of oversight is appropriate and cost effective for different types of arm’s-length bodies; the sector remains confused and incoherent. There is no single list of all ALBs across government nor a common understanding of when ALBs should be used, or what type of ALB is most appropriate for particular circumstances. Different departments define ALBs in different ways and some ALBs are uncertain about how they relate to their department’s objectives. The prevailing inconsistency hampers a coherent approach to overseeing ALBs that is consistent with their purpose, although the Cabinet Office is building on its Public Bodies Reform Programme and taking further steps to address this.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said:

“If one of the main reasons for having arm’s length bodies is to provide a zone of relative independence, the fact that oversight mechanisms focus predominantly on compliance and control means there is almost certainly room for improvement.”

View PCF's response to the report here. 

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Making Connections, Shaping Debates: The Unique Role of the Public Chairs’ Forum

May 01 2014

Making Connections, Shaping Debates: The Unique Role of the Public Chairs’ Forum

This report was published by Dr Katherine Tonkiss and Dr Katharine Dommett as part of the Shrinking the State project. It looks at the role of the Public Chairs' Forum and the range of highly useful functions it provides its members.  

The authors highlight that: ‘The PCF has grown from a small and relatively uninfluential network of chairs, into a formalised organisation managing strong relationships with government and other actors, and has become a key resource for chairs to share experiences and learn from best practice’.

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Relationship Web

relationshipweb application

Relationship Web is a diagnostic self-assessment tool, for both ALBs and Departments to use to test the state of the relationship. It is based on the diagnostic questions within the joint PCF and Institute for Government framework for effective relations and allows Departments and ALBs to identify strengths and weaknesses in their own relationships. The diagnostic statements are divided into five key areas for effectiveness, as identified in ‘It takes two’: accountabilities; strategic approach; financial and performance management; communication and engagement; and relationship management.

After completing the exercise, your results are then plotted on to a 'spider’s web' – the further away from the centre your responses, the more effective your relationship; the idea being to stretch the web over time to improve your performance. You will then be able to download a PDF version of the 'spider’s web' and save this on your computer. There will be an opportunity for individual ALBs and Departments to compare results to see how each party views their relationship. Rather than being the solution to any issues in the relationship, we hope that this exercise will act as a useful conversation starter between Department and ALB.

Cabinet Office Checklist

checklist application


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Cabinet Office have recently produced a checklist to help Arms Length Bodies and Departments to ensure that the most important aspects of managing transitions are considered. Inevitably, no one transition is identical to another one and depending on the type of transition you are involved in, there will be certain things within the checklist that don't apply to the specific circumstances of your transition.

So, rather than having to explore which parts are relevant to your circumstances, the Public Chairs' Forum has designed an application that will do this for you. By answering some simple questions about your transition, the application will produce a customised report and checklist, ensuring you focus on the right issues at the right time. We hope that the combination of the checklist and application will help to bring clarity, focus and practical solutions to an often complex process. Download your personalised report here.