THE CENTRE STRIKES BACK: META‐GOVERNANCE, DELEGATION, AND THE CORE EXECUTIVE IN THE UNITED KINGDOM, 2010–14

Date01 March 2015
Published date01 March 2015
AuthorMATTHEW FLINDERS,KATHARINE DOMMETT
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/padm.12121
doi: 10.1111/padm.12121
THE CENTRE STRIKES BACK: META-GOVERNANCE,
DELEGATION, AND THE CORE EXECUTIVE IN THE
UNITED KINGDOM, 2010–14
KATHARINE DOMMETT AND MATTHEW FLINDERS
A growing literature on ‘agencication’, ‘quangocratization’, and the ‘autonomization’ of the state
has highlighted a coordination dilemma in contemporary public governance whereby governments
rely on delegated governance but are frustrated by the lack of control that arises from such struc-
tures. In the run-up to the 2010 General Election in the United Kingdom this coordination dilemma
was prominent as the capacity of the Cabinet Ofce to exert control over arm’s-length bodies, either
directly or indirectly, received intense criticism. This article presents the ndings of the rst detailed
research project to examine the subsequent Coalition Government’s approach to this dilemma. It
argues that in relation to the governance of public bodies, the role and capacity of the Cabinet Ofce
has been transformed. In mapping this development the article explores the implications of the cen-
tre striking back in the context of ‘post-New Public Management’ reforms.
INTRODUCTION
The structure of the state and the nature of contemporary public governance have long
been in ux. Shaped by a desire for increased political control and bureaucratic efciency,
governments of all shades have experimented with the architecture of the state (Mackenzie
and Grove 1957; Chester and Willson 1968; Self 1977; Jones 1989). In recent decades the
rise of New Public Management (NPM) has seen what have variously been termed the
unravelling, unbundling, and decoupling of the state, with governance moving from
a traditional layer cake model to a more complex marble cake conguration in which
the contours between the public and private sectors are increasingly blurred (Hooghe
and Marks 2003, 2004). This shift can be characterized as a ‘hub model’ of governing in
which a small strategic departmental core exists at the centre (or ‘hub’) of a vast range of
arm’s-length implementation mechanisms.
Whilst often designed to create a leaner,smarter state, such reforms have, paradoxically,
resulted in an increasingly complex and fragmented public sector that exists beyond the
direct control of elected politicians. From special operating agencies in Canada to Crown
entities in New Zealand, and from independent administrative authorities in France to
autonomous public organizations in Thailand, the sphere of delegated governance has
grown signicantly in recent decades (OECD 2002). This has createda dilemma for govern-
ments as, despite gaining much in terms of policy implementation and political insulation
from delegation, ministers experience weakened central control.
This article returns to ongoing debates within British core executive studies on the
hollowed-out state (Rhodes 1994; Holliday 2000). Considering the changing position and
capacity of the Cabinet Ofce within the core executive since 2010, it explores an attempt
to reduce fragmentation and increase control over arm’s-length bodies through increased
coordination and central capacity (Christensen 2012; Diamond 2014). Drawing upon
original research in the UK, this article makes three core arguments:
Argument 1: The role and capacity of the Cabinet Ofce vis-à-vis non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs)
has been signicantly enhanced since May 2010.
Katharine Dommett and Matthew Flinders are in the Department of Politics, University of Shefeld, UK.
Public Administration Vol.93, No. 1, 2015 (1–16)
© 2014 The Authors. Public Administration published by John Wiley& Sons Ltd.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons AttributionLicense, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any
medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
2 KATHARINE DOMMETT AND MATTHEW FLINDERS
Argument 2: Those problemsand challenges that have traditionally been associated with ‘hollowing-out’ have
now been transferred to mainstream departments of state.
Argument 3: The Coalition Government’s reform agenda reveals a failure of meta-governance.
This article presents the ndings of the rst detailed research projectto analyse and track
the Cabinet Ofce-led public bodies reform agenda since May 2010, an agenda which led
to 904 bodies being reviewed and 283 closed (National Audit Ofce 2014a, p. 4). It draws
upon over 150 interviews with politicians, civil servants, and chairs or chief executives
of public bodies (conducted between September 2010 and December 2013). Documentary
analysis and observation of internal meetings, workshops, and conferences in ministerial
departments also delivered fresh insights and data.
This article makes a theoretical contribution by locating core executive studies within
the broader and related sub-elds of multi-level governance and meta-governance. It inte-
grates these literatures to explore, in detail, the UK government’s response to the increased
complexity arising from NPM reforms. Unlike previouswork in this area which has tended
to utilize quantitative analyses to explore the implications of NPM and post-NPM initia-
tives (Zafra-Gomes et al. 2012), this article maps how central government capacity has been
enhanced, and traces the consequences of these changes for departments, public bodies,
and state governance more generally.
To substantiate these arguments and explore their broader theoretical and comparative
relevance, this article is divided into three sections. The rst section focuses on conceptual
and theoretical foundations by exploring the concept of meta-governance before explain-
ing its relationship with the literature on core executive studies. The second and most
substantive section then develops this argument by discussing how the Coalition Gov-
ernment in the UK has, since May 2010, attempted to solve what Gash and Rutter (2011)
labelled the ‘quango conundrum’ within the context of debates about meta-governance
and the capacity of the core executive. The nal section then considers the relevance of
this research from an international and comparative perspective.
META-GOVERNANCE AND CORE EXECUTIVE STUDIES
How do scholars who generally exist very much beyond the state seek to understand the
shifting pressures and structures within the state? The answer is that they utilize theories,
concepts, and techniques – tools of political analysis – to examine how the modern state
actually operates intus, et in cute (i.e. underneath, and in the esh). These tools include
rational choice theoretic approaches, a variety of institutionalisms, sophisticated quanti-
tative techniques, interpretive approaches, and many other theories and methods. The
selected tools deployed here are the theory of ‘meta-governance’ and the concept of the
core executive. This section offers a brief account of each approach, illustrates their com-
plementarity, and reects upon their analytical leverage for a study of the Coalition Gov-
ernment’s public bodies reform programme.
If the hub-model of governance (discussed above) is accepted as the dominant emerg-
ing model of the state (Verhoest et al. 2012), then how politicians govern at a distance
becomes a – if not the – central question of contemporary statecraft. This question leads
to the concept of meta-governance and its focus on the governance of governance or – to
adopt Lash’s (2002) terms – the transition from the logic of structures to the logic of ows.
Scholars of meta-governance are concerned with the changing role, capacity, and reach
of the state in an era of proliferating networks and increasingly decentred structures.
Meta-governance ‘points to the mechanisms that public authority and other resourceful
Public Administration Vol.93, No. 1, 2015 (1–16)
© 2014 The Authors. Public Administration published by John Wiley& Sons Ltd.

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