Do ‘sticky’ institutions always survive? The demise of the Audit Commission

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Katherine Tonkiss

The Audit Commission played a central role in the audit, inspection, performance improvement and regulation of local authorities (and other public service providers) in England for over thirty years. Operating at arm’s length from government, it thrived under the efficiency and performance improvement agendas of successive Conservative and Labour governments, growing into a large and powerful public body. Yet those familiar with the history of the Audit Commission may note that antipathy towards the institution among local authorities and other stakeholders grew at the same time its powers were being expanded, and when the Coalition Government came to power in 2010 the Commission had lost considerable popular support. Yet few – and least of all the Audit Commission itself – anticipated the announcement of its abolition in August 2010.

The academic literature on the reform of arm’s length bodies doesn’t account for the relative ease with which the decision to abolish the Audit Commission was accepted and progressed. This literature tends to highlight how abolitions of large and powerful bodies which are deeply embedded in the public institutional architecture of the state (as the Audit Commission was) are very contested and difficult to implement. The literature refers to the ‘institutional stickiness’ often displayed by such bodies, denoting their capacity to survive even where there is considerable will to abolish. The Audit Commission appears to buck this trend – why?

This is the question we sought to tackle in our recent article on the abolition of the Audit Commission, published in Local Government Studies. In our article we apply a form of ‘argumentative discourse analysis’ to a large qualitative dataset which we collated on the abolition. This approach enabled us to focus on the ways in which narratives and storylines expressed by different actors framed the Audit Commission and the decision to abolish. As a result, we are able to demonstrate how discourse is an important medium through which administrative reform is negotiated.

In our analysis we identified that there was a strong pro-abolition discourse which focused on the idea that the Audit Commission had become bureaucratic, inefficient and burdensome; that it was not delivering a regulatory function in the public interest; and that change was needed to rectify these problems to deliver full accountability for public audit. This discourse was underpinned by a range of storylines which focused on areas such as accountability, localism, inefficiency and the desirability of open market competition for audit contracts. These storylines were uttered by a wide range of considerably powerful actors such as the government, conservative MPs, the right-wing press and the Local Government Association, and in a range of public settings including parliamentary debates, evidence to select committees, press briefings and ministerial statements.

By contrast the anti-abolition discourse was far weaker. It focused on the Audit Commission as providing a high quality independent audit function and sought to challenge narratives about it being inefficient and wasteful. The key storylines were uttered by the left-leaning press, the Audit Commission itself, some third sector organisations, some Labour MPs and a trade union, making use of select committees, responses to the government consultation on the decision to abolish, and open letters. Yet this discourse was not overtly anti-reform. It focused more on preserving the key functions of the Audit Commission, such as the independence of public audit, more than it did on the preservation of the Commission itself.

What our analysis shows, therefore, is that a strong ‘discourse coalition’ formed around the pro-abolition position which provided a solid basis for the newly elected government – aided by a popular mandate, legislative capacity and executive authority – to move forward with abolition. The influential actors involved were able to access various institutional settings which ensured that these storylines would be reported in the media. Timing and time were also important factors – the proposal was developed in secret, and the Audit Commission was only notified a few hours ahead of the abolition statement in the House of Commons. Such timing prevented the Audit Commission from formulating and seeking to build a strong discourse coalition around its own anti-abolition storyline.

The Audit Commission’s ability to survive was also hindered by deep institutional norms which prevented it from seeking its own preservation. This can help to explain why it refrained from launching a full defence, focusing only on the preservation of its functions rather than of the organisation. The discursive resources open to the Audit Commission were constrained by the deep norms which come with accepting appointed office, including not criticising its own abolition or political decisions concerning administrative reform. Without this defence, and without substantial stakeholder opposition to the proposals, the abolition was relatively straightforward.

Our analysis, therefore, helps to explain why, contrary to the literature on institutional stickiness and to other parallel cases of public body abolition at the time, the Audit Commission’s abolition was relatively simple and unopposed. Isolated and bound by institutional norms not to criticise its own abolition, the Audit Commission and its few supporters were placed in a weak position by a powerful pro-abolition discourse coalition.

This post is based on the following article: Tonkiss, K. and Skelcher, C. (2015) Abolishing the Audit Commission: framing, discourse coalitions and administrative reform. Local Government Studies. DOI: 10.1080/03003930.2015.1050093.

Katherine Tonkiss is a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at the School of Languages and Social Sciences, Aston University. Prior to this she was a Research Fellow at INLOGOV working on Shrinking the State, a project examining the abolition of public bodies under Coalition Government.

Katie Tonkiss

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