Why it's time to transform the relationships between departments and arm's-length bodies
Lesley Ann Nash, the Cabinet Office's director for public bodies reform, explains how the government's new code is aiming to shift relationships between departments and arm’s-length bodies away from compliance and control towards a proportionate, risk-based partnership model
Delivering the government’s reform agenda and building a stronger, fairer Britain and an economy that benefits everyone will require all parts of the public sector to work together effectively.
This is particularly important for the relationships between departments and arm’s-length bodies. Arm’s-length bodies deliver vital public services in a range of areas. However, as the National Audit Office (NAO) and Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found in reviews last year, more needs to be done to build effective working relationships between them and departments and to make better use of the expertise they possess.
That’s why since the summer, Cabinet Office has been working with departments and arm’s-length bodies to develop a Code of Good Practice for how to build effective working relationships, with the code published at the end of last week.
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The Code of Good Practice provides a set of overarching principles and standards for departments and arm’s-length bodies to use to develop effective relationships. However, it is not prescriptive in its approach. As the PAC noted, there can be no “one size fits all” model for oversight of arm’s-length bodies.
The Code was developed collaboratively by a working group of departments and arm’s-length bodies, facilitated by the Cabinet Office. The principles themselves are drawn from best practice from across government.
The Code aims to bring all relationships between departments and arm’s-length bodies up to a consistently high standard. But more importantly, it also seeks to transform relationships, away from what has historically been a focus on compliance and control, towards a proportionate, risk-based partnership model.
The Code sets out four principles to achieve this:
- Purpose – clear and mutually understood purpose, objectives, and roles
- Assurance – a proportionate approach to assurance based on the risk and purpose of the arm’s-length body
- Value – departments and arm’s-length bodies sharing skills and experience in order to enhance their impact and deliver more effectively
- Engagement – open, honest, constructive relationships based on trust, mutual understanding and clear expectations about the terms of engagement
Following these principles, and the standards that support them, will help departments and arm’s-length bodies to work together more effectively.
Departments are already considering how their relationships meet the principles and standards of the Code and are developing plans to address areas for improvement. In the future, departments will assess their relationships with arm’s-length bodies against the principles in the Code as part of routine reviews and annual assurance processes.
The Code of Good Practice is an opportunity to think about how relationships between departments and arm’s-length bodies can work better. I ask colleagues across government to live by the principles and standards of the Code so that we can all work together more effectively and deliver on the government’s reform agenda.
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