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ANZSOG Research Model project to improve governance and operations of small statutory agencies

7 December 2022

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The Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), in partnership with the Public Sector Commissions of Queensland and Western Australia, have commissioned a new research project to explore the governance and operation of smaller statutory agencies to identify best practices in their operation and maximise their value to the public. 

The public sector includes a wide range of smaller statutory agencies that pursue narrower, more specialised functions, and that work alongside and with large departments that develop policy and manage major services. Their use is growing and they are an increasingly prominent and under-studied part of the system of government. These agencies play important roles in delivering government policy, enforcing regulation, and providing specialist advice to government. They span a diverse range that includes law reform commissions, professional standards boards, film production agencies, and ombudsman’s offices, and many other functions. 

The full value of these agencies, and their accountability for that value, is determined by the contribution they make to government as a system. They often operate under resource and capacity constraints due to their small size and specificity of their legislated roles. This means they face, more acutely than larger agencies, the trade-off between institutional autonomy and the challenges and opportunities of being part of the broader system of government. 

The research project will be undertaken by the Public Policy Institute at the University of Western Australia, headed by Professor Shamit Saggar, and will focus on identifying and developing practical advice for managers and staff of smaller statutory agencies. To this end, the centrepiece of the research will be a series of policy-practice panels that will bring together senior leaders from smaller statutory agencies and larger auspicing and central agencies, experts from public sector commissions and academia, and stakeholder representatives. The panels will take place in different jurisdictions across the country, developing a comparative analysis of governance forms, agency functions, and benefits and risks. Key findings and insights from the panels and other research will be developed into best practice guidelines and other briefing materials for policymakers 

While public administration research has increasingly focused on how governments can create public value through coordinated policy actions, it is less often noted that this question bears equally on non-departmental agencies.  The question for leaders in these agencies is how they can fulfil their mandates in a way that also aids in the pursuit of good government generally.  

In recent years, interest in this topic has begun to emerge. For example, Queensland’s Public Interest Map, developed in 2016, provides a framework for how the system question for smaller public agencies might be approached. The policy provides a threshold test for when a government action might be best undertaken by a non-departmental body, based on existing capabilities, the desirability of the action being undertaken independently, and an assessment of benefit and risk. Based on this test, the form of the new agency can be developed. Crucially, whatever form the agency takes, there are certain governance arrangements that it must have, including role clarity for ministers, managers, board members and so on, lines of reporting and accountability, and performance and risk management processes. More broadly, there has been some limited academic engagement with the related topics of arms-length governance, functional independence, and the resource implications of citizen engagement (or public participation).  

The ANZSOG research project will clarify how frameworks, like Queensland’s, play out in practice. There are interesting questions about how to characterise small agencies – whether, for example, size should be measured in terms of staffing, resources, or function, and whether these are absolute measures or relative to the systems in which the agencies reside – but, however defined, certain considerations emerge from smallness as such. These include:  

  • how public managers ought to interpret their mandates in light of system priorities but also their constrained resources, perhaps by looking for opportunities to share services and overheads with other agencies 
  • the importance of role clarity for ministers and public managers, especially in their interactions with governing or advisory boards, which are often a structural feature of regulatory and specialist agencies; 
  • capturing the full public value of time-limited smaller statutory agencies, by adapting their governance and operations to system priorities and by enabling the transfer of knowledge gained through their operations;  
  • maintaining transparent lines of accountability without compromising the independence and mission-focus characteristic of smaller statutory agencies, 
  • reinforcing the Westminster balance between apolitical and high-performing agencies and political accountability through Parliament to citizens. 

This new research project will focus on practitioners’ experience and build on the emerging literature, to yield a range of insights into the increasing role of smaller statutory agencies within our system of government. It will examine how this role can, by the identification of best practice principles, maximise value for government and for the public. These insights will be made freely available to other jurisdictions as part of ANZSOG’s mission to lift the quality of public management in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. 

This project is part of the second round of ANZSOG’s Research Model, the success of which is based on our unique ability to connect academics and practitioners in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. ANZSOG’s Research Model adopts a practice-driven and collaborative approach to research, delivering projects that respond to major issues of interest in public administration, policy development and management. Reports from the 2021 Research Model projects on Flexible working in the Australian Capital Territory Public Service and How do place-based services evolve in a world of virtual, physical and hybrid service delivery? are available through ANZSOG’s Research Insights series.