From ‘poor parenting’ to micro-management: coalition governance and the sponsorship of arm’s-length bodies in the United Kingdom, 2010–13

Matthew Flinders*, Katherine Tonkiss

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The delegation of public tasks to arm’s-length bodies remains a central feature of contemporary reform agendas within both developed and developing countries. The role and capacity of political and administrative principals (i.e. ministers and departments of state) to control the vast network of arm’s-length bodies for which they are formally responsible is therefore a critical issue within and beyond academe. In the run-up to the 2010 General Election in the United Kingdom, the ‘quango conundrum’ emerged as an important theme and all three major parties committed themselves to shift the balance of power back towards ministers and sponsor departments. This article presents the results of the first major research project to track and examine the subsequent reform process. It reveals a stark shift in internal control relationships from the pre-election ‘poor parenting’ model to a far tighter internal situation that is now the focus of complaints by arm’s-length bodies of micro-management. This shift in the balance of power and how it was achieved offers new insights into the interplay between different forms of governance and has significant theoretical and comparative relevance. Points for practitioners: For professionals working in the field of arm’s-length governance, the article offers three key insights. First, that a well-resourced core executive is critical to directing reform given the challenges of implementing reform in a context of austerity. Second, that those implementing reform will also need to take into account the diverse consequences of centrally imposed reform likely to result in different departments with different approaches to arm’s-length governance. Third, that reforming arm’s-length governance can affect the quality of relationships, and those working in the field will need to mitigate these less tangible challenges to ensure success.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)490-515
Number of pages26
JournalInternational Review of Administrative Sciences
Issue number3
Early online date19 Jun 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding: ESRC (ES/J010553/1).


  • central administration
  • civil service
  • control
  • networks
  • public management
  • public sector reform


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