Guest post by Dr Matthew Wood, Lecturer in Politics and Deputy Director of the Crick Centre, University of Sheffield
On 1st June 2018 over 30 academics and practitioners from around the world came together at the University of Sheffield to debate the future of arm’s length public bodies, specifically the key challenges they face on accountability and stakeholder engagement. Public bodies are organisations carrying out public work on behalf of the government, but are unelected. Accountability and stakeholder engagement are therefore key for public bodies as ways of assuring public trust and confidence.
The event provided an opportunity to discuss findings from Dr Wood’s three-year ESRC Future Leaders research project on public bodies, and an international survey of accountability in public bodies coordinated by Professor Thomas Schillemans. International experts on public bodies attended from Universities in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway, Belgium, and Australia. The event was also attended by representatives from the OECD, UK Cabinet Office, Institute for Government, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Department for Education, and practitioners from Dutch public bodies, among others.
Prior to the event, Dr Wood asked academics and practitioners to send through what they thought were the key issues facing public bodies, and made these the subject of debate and discussion over the two hours. This blog summarises the key points of debate, criticism and themes for future research co-produced between all the attendees.
What are the emerging challenges for accountability and public confidence in public bodies?
Brexit was identified as a key challenge for public bodies in the UK, given there will be a large number of regulatory responsibilities transferred from the European level in March 2019, which public bodies are likely to be required to implement. Public bodies are therefore likely to take on a range of tasks previously performed by EU decentralised agencies and the European Commission.
In this context, participants noted an increasing problem related to time pressures and lack of resources to ensure stakeholders are able to hold public bodies properly accountable. For example, the legislative timetable in Parliament is so crowded that there is very little time to fully scrutinise work plans and accounts, with potentially significant implications for public confidence. One emergent theme was therefore the question of how to manage time in a context of constrained resources.
How do accountability relationships shape decision making in public bodies?
Decision making is shaped by formal requirements for information provision, and informal relationships between public bodies, their Boards and parent departments. The international survey findings point to the potential that stronger disciplining powers for departments to sanction public bodies could have a significant positive impact on working relationships by providing clarity and coherence to relationships.
How are conflicts resolved when public bodies have competing accountabilities in two different directions?
Public bodies are committed to presenting information in a timely and efficient manner, but often they have competing organisations they have to give account to. For example, public bodies may be asked to report to parliamentary select committees, audit offices, and central departments simultaneously on similar issues. This can create confusion about which relationships to prioritise.
One proposed solution to this problem was to refer back to official rules about which organisations are the main ‘principals’ of the public bodies in question. Public bodies have formal arrangements governing which forums they should engage with first and foremost (often departments) and these ought to be a ‘go to’ source of advice in the event of confusion about lines of reporting.
How can public bodies effectively manage public expectations around taking immediate action to assure accountability during crises, and manage their own approach to adverse social media coverage?
This part of the discussion centred on the need for departments and public bodies to cooperate in managing public expectations. Rather than participating in ‘blame games’, departments and the staff of public bodies should talk to each other in the event of a crisis and share staff time to develop management strategies. Often, there are no clear ‘effective solutions’, because crises are unpredictable and complex, but focusing on common lines to take and coordinating media responses.
Another key point was that accountability has important temporal dimensions. In essence, there are more pressures for accountability to ‘work’ in the aftermath of emergencies and scandals, so flexibility is important and communicating clearly between relevant operational teams and points of contact in public bodies and governments is crucial.
How do public managers deal with “information overload” and what are its implications for democracy and accountability within arm’s length agencies?
Information overload is a key issue for public bodies, and across the public sector. This part of the discussion made clear that often public bodies provide large amounts of information to meet accountability demands that overwhelms departments and might be seen as unnecessary. However, there was an appreciation that the demands for public bodies to make sure they are covering all the bases means they often feel encouraged to provide extensive information and justification. One suggestion for resolving this tension was to refer back to guidelines on what needs to be provided and for what purpose.
How do public bodies and other expert agencies engage with stakeholders within and outside government?
Dr Wood’s work suggests that agencies can effectively engage with stakeholders through ‘entrepreneurship’ – going beyond formal organisational responsibilities to be proactive in seeking out opportunities to engage stakeholders. They do this through:
- Improving website accessibility/readability;
- Pro-actively seeking coverage from traditional and non-traditional media outlets;
- Face-to-face events with stakeholders;
- Close collaboration with stakeholders through informal working groups;
- Training exercises with professional audiences and service users;
- Internal learning and reform exercises.
Dr Wood presented a typology of ‘entrepreneurship’ strategies developed by his ESRC-funded research, covering ‘technical’ and ‘insulating’ public bodies that cover less of the six criteria, and ‘networking’ and ‘politicised’ public bodies covering more of them. He presented data suggesting ‘politicised’ public bodies are more likely to be viewed as legitimate within parliamentary debates.
One response to this was that ‘entrepreneurship’ might be more relevant for public bodies with more resources available to them. Another critical view was that entrepreneurial strategies cannot be a substitute or ‘smokescreen’ for formal and legal responsibilities, and public bodies need to be wary of straying too far from their legal remit.
What kinds of stakeholder engagement practices do public bodies create? Which are most effective?
One key example of good practice for stakeholder engagement was the Electoral Commission. The Commission is good at providing very clear explanations of electoral law, its relevance, and why what it does matters for the public good. It presents information in an accessible but authoritative way, in a similar way to the ‘insulating’ approach presented in Dr Wood’s typology. This suggests that a more constrained strategy, focusing on elements of ‘entrepreneurship’ that are specifically relevant to individual public bodies, could be better for securing legitimacy, than one focused on reaching out to various diverse stakeholders.
How do and with which consequences do agencies balance political responsiveness and agency credibility and reputation?
The discussion highlighted how public bodies need to provide objective and clear information and have a well-defined approach to communicating their remit, responsibilities, and why their work has public benefit, to key audiences. The reputation of public bodies is forged through a strong sense of public purpose and commitment to serving diverse communities. This challenge is particularly relevant internationally, where the discussion highlighted how international public bodies find communicating their expertise and role more difficult.
How can governments design ALBs to allow them capacity to manage stakeholder engagement in ways that promote collective public good, and address power inequities and representativeness of affected audiences?
A key theme running through the final discussion was that public bodies should be confident that, despite being unelected, they carry out and advise on crucial political decisions that require extensive consultation and scrutiny. Since government departments often do not have the time or resources to carry out such detailed work, public bodies provide a key function. A key point was to refer back to official guidance about public bodies’ mission and purpose, and to communicate this in an efficient and effective manner.