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Balancing Autonomy, Control and Accountability: An Exploratory Study of the Steering Relationship between the Irish Department of Justice and three of its agencies - 2015 to 2020

2022, Laffan, John, 0000-0001-7442-7857

This study examines evolution of the steering relationship between the Irish Department of Justice and three of its agencies between 2015, when annual Performance Agreements were introduced, and 2020. The study focuses on the performance targets in the agreements to explore evolution of the relationship through the prism of Gradual Institutional Change Theory. This research is therefore focused on public sector reform and governance. It seeks to extend existing knowledge about the relationship between an Irish Government Department and its agencies. It is the first longitudinal study of performance agreements between an Irish Department and its agencies. A qualitative approach was adopted for the study, combining detailed documentary analysis focused on the content of the annual performance agreements, with semi-structured interviews with key elite informants in the Department and each of the agencies. The three case study agencies are the Insolvency Service of Ireland (ISI), National Disability Authority (NDA), and Property Services Regulatory Authority (PSRA). They are respectively a service delivery agency, a policy advisory agency, and a regulatory agency. Primary task or function is thus a key explanatory variable. Other structural characteristics of these agencies – namely age, size, political salience, and presence (or absence of) a governing board, are all utilised to predict the level of autonomy that would be expected in the case of each agency. Performance targets in the agreements were extracted, standardised, and classified. Classification of targets was based on their focus on inputs, organisational processes, outputs, or outcomes. This classification was used to identify the steering type applied to each agency, using Askim et al.’s (2019) typology of modes of steering. The documentary sources provided valuable information on the mode of steering being applied in each case. To gain insight into the dynamics of change over time, semi-structured interviews were undertaken with senior officials in the Department and agencies with direct experience of negotiation and implementation of the agreements. Guiding concerns were nature of Department control, degree of agency autonomy, and extent of agency accountability. A clear pattern across the agencies of increasing number of targets over time was observed. Focus of the targets also changed over time. The Department deliberately adopted a light touch approach early in the process, seeking to establish agency support. A weak focus on performance was observed in the early agreements. The regime did, however, make agencies more accountable to the Department. The Department retained a high level of control over inputs available to the agencies. Impact of the regime on agency performance was limited. Agencies sometimes leveraged the process to gain additional resources. Background of individual agency CEOs had an influence on the process, but agency boards appeared to exert little influence. Agencies appear receptive to moving to a more performance-oriented system but are hampered by tight Department control of inputs. Structural characteristics have an impact on level of autonomy experienced by individual agencies, but not always in line with expectations derived from comparative literature. These findings are likely to relate to the institutional history of Irish agencification, which was not driven by the New Public Management paradigm. Instead, Irish agencies were often established on an ad hoc basis, responding to a specific political crisis. Thus, while the introduction of performance agreements has had positive impacts on agency accountability, some reforms might enhance impact on agency performance. Three suggestions are made in this regard. These are a stronger focus by the Department on outcomes, publication of performance and outcome data by agencies, and engaging agency boards in the performance process.