Future of Arms Length Bodies
Author: Local Government Information Unit
The Carnegie UK Trust has a long history of work on issues of public accountability, recognising that a healthy, vibrant democracy is an essential prerequisite for both individual and community wellbeing. The Trust’s Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society highlighted the critical role that governments and public bodies play in creating more participatory and deliberative democracies.
Since the publication of our Commission report, there has been a renewed focus across the UK and the devolved governments on reducing the number of arms-length bodies, often caricatured as a ‘bonfire of the quangos’. This development interested us for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the discourse on arms-length bodies focuses on their unelected nature and therefore, any ‘bonfire’ is seen to be justified in terms of increasing democratic accountability. An organisation like the Carnegie UK Trust would therefore be expected to support the reduction in quangos. But we are not convinced that the issue is so straightforward. The Institute of Government’s analysis of arms-length bodies should leave no one in any doubt that in some cases, where independence is essential, agencies at arms-length from government can be the best way of securing the desired outcome.
Secondly, current governments across the UK are not the first to try this approach to reducing public expenditure. Indeed, public bodies come and go with alarming regularity. But the model of bodies at arms-length from government is resilient, and a constant feature of the public sector. We believe that there are strong and compelling reasons for quangos to remain within the tools that governments have to deliver for citizens and consumers.
Finally, we were aware that the UK and national ‘bonfires’ were co-existing with a significant increase in the number of arms-length bodies being set up at local level. We wanted to understand more about local governments’ attitude to, and interest in, arms-length bodies.
This publication, by the LGiU with funding from the Carnegie UK Trust, highlights the importance of arms-length bodies from a local government perspective and recommends actions to improve the accountability of these bodies.
The report comes from one particular perspective, that of local government. We are aware that there are many other perspectives, not least that of the citizen-consumer. We share the aspiration of the LGiU that this work will contribute