Debating Agency Termination in the UK


Agencies have become active actors within contemporary governance as they are used extensively to regulate markets as well as to deliver public services and provide advice. This broad class of organizations carry out functions delegated to them by political principals so they can exercise judgment free from partisan influence. In particular, the delegation of powers to agencies may help politicians to solve the credibility problems by disentangling regulation from the electoral cycle. However, delegation raises problems of political control as agencies’ policy making can diverge from the preferences of political principals. These problems can lead to the termination of agencies which is explored by the four articles reviewed here which share the focus on the UK case.

Greasley and Hanretty analyze agency termination in the UK from 1985 to 2008. The main finding of their research are the following: a) factors relating to the rationale for initial delegation matter since agencies intended to generate credible commitments are less likely to be terminated; b) agency survival is related to the political ideology of the government and the level of government debt: right-wing governments and heavily indebted government are more likely to terminate agencies, although left-wing government are more sensitive to the level of debt; c) the institutional form of the agency matters as executive non-departmental public bodies and non-ministerial departments are longer lived than others; d) partisan change does not affect the risk of termination.

A further attempt to explore agency termination in the UK has been made by O’ Leary who seeks to test hypotheses related to three factors affecting agency survival: political turnover, age and agency type. By analyzing the reform of public bodies implemented by the Conservative government in 2010 the paper reports findings different from those highlighted by Greasley and Hanretty since the research found that non-departmental public bodies were more exposed to agency termination than others. It also found higher survival rates for older agencies while political turnover has not affected agency termination since agencies established under Conservative government were not more likely to survive than those established under Labour governments.

The effects of political turnover are analyzed in more detail by James, Petrovsky, Moseley and Boyne who use survival models with a dataset of all UK executive agencies from 1989 to 2012. The findings show that ministers seek to signal their policy goals through terminating agencies created by previous ministers, which is reinforced by high media attention to the agency. However, agency termination does not imply improved performance: there is no evidence that poor performance is associated with termination, and agencies replacing terminated agencies do not demonstrate higher performance than those they replace. Finally, financial autonomy provides some protection for agencies with those raising their own funds being at less at risk of termination than others.

James, Petrovsky, Moseley and Boine conclude their study by recommending to conduct future research on the impact of agency leadership effects on survival. This recommendation has been followed by Dommet and Skelcher by analyzing how UK agencies responded  to reform proposals threatening downsizing, reduction in functions, or even termination, in the period 2010-2013. By opening the black box of agency responses to reform proposals, this study understands agencies as active actors in the reform processes. Three defense strategies are identified: a) Technical expert: information asymmetries at the technical level make the political principals vulnerable to well-evidenced recommendations intended to retain at least some of the functions of the agency; b) Network node: agencies are well-embedded in a stakeholder network and can mobilize other actors in support of their survival; c) Marginal adaptor: agencies work with their ministry to realize the reforms, but take the opportunity to propose marginal changes. As acknowledged by the authors, the next step of their future research is to assess the extent to which the three different strategies are successful in moderating reform proposals or having them withdrawn.

Paola Coletti

Photo credits: Arch018 Studio