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Small Statutory Agencies Play a Large Role in Support of Good Governance: insights from new ANZSOG research

13 December 2023

News and media


Original ANZSOG research examines the complex authorising environment of small statutory agencies and demonstrates the importance of them balancing their formal independence and their practical reliance on larger government departments.

The research provides practical guidance about the establishment, governance, and operations of this increasingly important part of the machinery of government, and the realities involved in effectively balancing functional relationships.

The Purpose of Small Statutory Agencies: Insights on their Functions, Form, and Practices was produced as part of a larger project, commissioned by ANZSOG in partnership with the Public Sector Commission of Queensland and the Public Sector Commission of Western Australia, investigating the governance and operations of small statutory agencies. The project was motivated by the increasing use by government of non-departmental bodies for various technical, oversight, and specialised service delivery functions, some of which are, by design and in practice, relatively small in terms of their resources, staffing, and domains, while maintaining a degree of operational independence.

An earlier report for the project, written by researchers at the University of Western Australia’s Public Policy Institute, found that the rationale for the establishment of these agencies was not always systematic or clear, and that their operation as part of the broader system of government is understudied.

Building on this earlier work, ANZSOG undertook a qualitative study inquiring into the practical realities of small statutory agencies. The new research is a study based on interviews with ten leaders of small statutory agencies from three Australian jurisdictions. The report captures their insights into the practical realities of successfully running a small statutory agency, their contribution to good government, and the enablers and constraints they encounter within the broader public sector system. The findings provide some further observations and guidance about the key consideration’s governments should take into account in establishing and governing small statutory agencies.

The research finds that, in practice, a key dynamic for small statutory agencies is balancing their formal independence with their functional dependencies on larger departments and the broader system of government. Regardless of their specific roles, small statutory agencies remain part of the public sector and must meet the obligations, and contribute to the priorities of, the broader system. How small statutory agencies negotiate these relationships and navigate within the broader machinery of government is central to their success.

This relational aspect of small statutory agencies presents opportunities and risks. These agencies have the opportunity to define their missions and craft a unique role for themselves – and, indeed, a key part of the work of their leadership is to promote their agencies to stakeholders and demonstrate their value. At the same time, they must guard their independent powers (to, for example, make determinations, conduct investigation and research, and advocate for specific interests) against potential interference or unworkable material constraints.

Agencies that are more integrated into departments, have less control over their resources and governance, or fewer resources, are likely to feel this tension between independence and integration more acutely. So, for governments deciding to establish an agency outside the departments of state for a specific purpose, and overseeing their operations, it should be understood that how this purpose is achieved will depend on various contingencies and expedients.

By focusing on small statutory agencies specifically, this research suggests that the central question for governments in establishing and operating non-departmental agencies is simply whether they have the capabilities, resources, and governance they need to fulfil their purposes.

It will assist both the two commissioning governments, and other jurisdictions in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, to establish and operate small statutory agencies that can exercise the independence needed to meet their legislated objectives while working effectively with the broader public service.

This research has been produced as part of an ANZSOG Research Model project. ANZSOG research aims to deliver practice-driven and collaborative public administration research which has broad applicability across government.