Political Legitimacy and Delegated Agencies

Delegated agencies are a crucial feature of governance in modern liberal democracies, making and implementing policies at arm’s-length from central governments.

Examples range from Non-ministerial Departments like the Forestry Commission, to Non-departmental Public Bodies such as the Environment Agency, and European agencies like the European Banking Authority.

While diverse in design and the tasks they carry out, delegated agencies offer a range of common practical benefits such as meeting long-term policy commitments, instituting expertise in policymaking and delivery, and helping to reduce overload on the central state.

At the same time, however, delegated agencies suffer from problems relating to their democratic legitimacy.

Most obviously, delegated agencies are not directly elected bodies like national Parliaments, and so cannot claim the same electoral mandate as politicians.

This is a critical problem because, as existing research shows, agencies are often regarded as inherently and inevitably secretive, which, in turn means that they are often vulnerable to constant reconfiguration and reform.

Project details:

Working with a range of global partners, and with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, in this project we are trying to understand how stakeholder engagement can help delegated agencies improve public understanding and trust in their work.

Looking at case studies in Asia, Africa, Australasia and Europe, we hope to identify best practice for securing trust and confidence in the work of delegated agencies, and examining how this can be improved over time.

In 2015, “Beyond Accountability: Political Legitimacy and Delegated Water Governance in Australia” by Matt Wood was published in Public Administration. Focusing on the case study of a water agency in Australia it argues that legitimacy must be developed through interaction with external stakeholders as well as through formal accounatability measures. In doing so a new conceptual framework for achieving legitimacy was created with the article arguing that this framework can be applied to further agencies in ‘wicked problem’ policy areas.

More projects: Re-politicisation and Political Transformation

Stakeholder engagement can help delegated agencies improve public understanding and trust in their work.

Related research streams

See more on our research stream: political institutions and democratic reform