Arm's-length bodies (ALBs) are a contested part of the government landscape. We have conducted research on ALBs and, with the Public Chairs Forum, have explored practical ways to improve the quality and effectiveness of their governance.

'Arm's-length body' is a general term, used to cover at least 11 types of organisation which operate at varying, and often contested, degrees of independence from government. They range from big organisations employing thousands of public servants and administering billions of pounds of public money, to small advisory committees with no independent budget. They regulate some of the most sensitive areas of public and private activity. At the same time they seem to suffer an ongoing crisis of legitimacy, as all political parties feel the need to rein in the quango state. The Government has embarked on an ambitious reform agenda for these public bodies, and is subjecting many of their activities and spending to much closer scrutiny and controls than before. The flux in ALB governance leads to challenges around making do with less, but also an opportunity to look again at how ALBs interact with central government and with their sponsoring departments.

Our research

Over the past several years, the Institute for Government has been working with insiders from both Whitehall and arm's-length bodies, the National Audit Office and external experts to shed light on this area of governance and identify options for reform. In July 2010, we published a report entitled Read Before Burning: how to increase the effectiveness and accountability of quangos. The Government announced the results of its review of arm's-length bodies in October 2010 and introduced legislation to reduce and reform them. At the same time, the Public Administration Select Committee launched an inquiry into ALBs, whose conclusions were published in January. The Institute gave evidence and commented on both the bill and the report. We have argued that the Government needs a more coherent and consistent approach to arm’s-length bodies and that it would benefit from a clearer way of classifying ALBs that explicitly linked form to function.

Partnership with the Public Chairs' Forum

We work closely with the Public Chairs' Forum (PCF) who are based at our offices. We worked together to provide practical help on the transitions many ALBs face.

In September 2011, we produced a joint guide with the PCF for ALBs on how to lead on transparency. Our most recent project has looked at the relationships between departments and their arm’s-length bodies. Our findings were summarised in a research report It Takes Two. It is accompanied by a Framework Document for both sponsors and ALBs, setting out the essential building blocks for balanced, effective and productive relationships was published, The Public Chairs Forum Relationship web tool is designed to help those in both departments and ALBs to understand the strengths and weaknesses in their relationships with one another. It is currently being piloted.

About the PCF

The Public Chairs' Forum exists to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the delivery of public services in the United Kingdom. It is a member led, exclusive information sharing and networking resource for chairs of public bodies and is hosted by the Institute at our 2 Carlton Gardens offices.

chris banksChris Banks CBE is the current Chair of the Public Chairs’ Forum. He was previously Chair of Directgov, the organisation at the heart of transforming the delivery of public services, and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), the organisation responsible for post-16 education and training in England. Chris has had a long and successful business career and recently founded the Independent College partnership. He is Deputy Pro-Chancellor of Birmingham University.

Emma Maloney is the manager of the PCF and is responsible for managing all aspects of PCF business.

For more information about the Public Chairs’ Forum, please visit their website.