Public bodies

This page explains the steps being taken to reform public bodies and gives guidance for departments.

Public bodies transformation programme 2016 to 2020

To achieve the government’s objectives, we have developed a new approach to the scrutiny of public bodies, based on functional and tailored reviews. This develops the strategy of drawing together public bodies on a cross-departmental basis to identify opportunities for reform.

Functional reviews

Functional reviews look across departments and examine holistically the functions of several public bodies in similar or related areas of government. This approach will identify opportunities for reform that cannot be revealed by reviewing bodies one by one. The first review covers bodies with regulatory functions. We will work in partnership with public bodies and departments during this and subsequent reviews.

Tailored reviews

Tailored reviews build on the success of the triennial review programme and extend the scope of reviews to include executive agencies and non-ministerial departments. They challenge and give assurance on the continuing need for individual organisations in terms of both function and form. Whilst each body will be subject to a tailored review, the scope of that review can be set in the context of departmental or functional reviews which have been, or are due to be carried out.

We have designed the new review framework to allow sponsoring departments the flexibility to adapt reviews to their needs and to co-ordinate tailored with functional or their own review programmes. Providing that bodies are subjected to proportionate yet rigorous scrutiny, the findings of functional reviews can feed into tailored reviews, reducing the work required for the latter and avoiding duplication.


An existing public body has to meet 1 of the following 3 tests in order to remain at arm’s length from government:

  • it performs a technical function
  • its activities require political impartiality
  • it needs to act independently to establish facts

A body is assessed against these during the review process.

The government will review all non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), executive agencies and non-ministerial departments at least once in the lifetime of each Parliament.

It is government policy that new bodies should be set up only as a last resort. Departments must consider all possible delivery models when exploring options for the provision of new services or functions. We have published guidance on the approval process for the creation of NDPBs and executive agencies.

NDPBs, executive agencies and non-ministerial departments

What is an NDPB?

A non-departmental public body (NDPB) is a “body which has a role in the processes of national government, but is not a government department or part of one, and which accordingly operates to a greater or lesser extent at arm’s length from ministers”.

NDPBs have different roles, including those that advise ministers and others which carry out executive or regulatory functions, and they work within a strategic framework set by ministers.

What is an executive agency?

Executive agencies are clearly designated units of a central government department, administratively distinct, but remaining legally part of it. It has a clear focus on delivering specific outputs within a framework of accountability to ministers.

What is a non-ministerial department?

A non-ministerial department is a government department in its own right but does not have its own minister. It is, however, accountable to Parliament through its sponsoring ministers. A non-ministerial department is staffed by civil servants and usually has its own estimate and accounts.

Public bodies reports

Public bodies 2015 provides a directory of data on NDPBs, executive agencies and non-ministerial departments, as well as information on the size and expenditure of these bodies and information on public appointments. We have published this report annually since 1980, and copies dating back to 1997 are available online.

Further information on individual bodies

Most public bodies have their own websites with information on their governance, functions and activities.

See the list of websites for departments, agencies and public bodies.

Creating, governing and closing public bodies

We publish guidance for departments on the creation and governance of public bodies in a public bodies handbook.

Classification of public bodies: information and guidance

This sets out the early decision-making process for establishing public bodies and summarises the main characteristics of different types of public bodies.

Process for the creation of new Arm’s-length bodies

This guidance sets out the approval process which must be followed by departmental officials when seeking to set up a new executive agency, NDPB or non-ministerial department.

Executive agencies: a guide for departments

This guide sets out the principle characteristics and structures of Executive Agencies, and provides guidance on the processes for their creation, review, merger and abolition.

Public bodies guide for departments (NDPBs)

This suite of documents out the principle characteristics and structures NDPBs and provides guidance on the processes for their creation, review, merger and abolition.

Code of conduct for board members of public bodies

We expect board members of public bodies to work to the highest personal and professional standards. The Cabinet Office’s code of conduct sets out, clearly and openly, the principles and standards which all non-executive board members of UK public bodies are expected to observe.

Rules on lobbying for non-departmental public bodies

There is a long-standing principle that public bodies must be politically impartial and must at all times ensure the proper use of public money. All NDPBs must comply with these rules on lobbying.


While public bodies have undergone significant reform, the landscape remains complex and is a barrier to reform. A simpler landscape would promote transparency and accountability and lay the foundation for further transformation.

An effective system for classification is an essential part of this. It should:

  • provide a clear map of the landscape
  • aid understanding of relationships between public bodies and ministers
  • promote good and timely decision-making when bodies are set up, merged, changed or abolished
  • facilitate wider transformation of the public bodies landscape by increasing efficiency and effectiveness and improving transparency and accountability

Working in partnership: departments and their arms-length bodies

The partnerships with arm’s-length bodies: code of good practice provides a set of principles and standards for departments and arm’s-length bodies to establish effective working relationships.

Departments should appoint a dedicated partner (or sponsor) for each of its arms-length bodies. It is their responsibility to manage the relationship between the department and the ALB in line with the principles set out in the Code of Good Practice.

They have specialist policy and delivery skills as well as expertise in sponsorship processes, and support their bodies to ensure they are accountable, high-performing organisations, giving value for money services outlined in their business plan and in their contribution to departmental objectives.

Guidance has been published to help them develop the skills and knowledge they need to be effective: *introduction to sponsorship: induction pack for new sponsors of arm’s-length bodies is for people who are new to sponsoring a public body. It is designed to complement any departmental specific guidance and training available for sponsors *sponsorship specialism competency framework sets out the competencies that sponsors need to be effective in their role

Classification review

In recognition of this the coalition government commissioned a review of the classification system.

We have recently completed this review and a summary of the findings and recommendations are contained in the report on the outcome of the classification review.

We are taking forward the implementation of the report’s recommendations and have made changes to the classification framework which are set out in the new classification of public bodies: guidance for departments.

In reaching the findings and recommendations, we actively sought the views of departmental sponsorship and policy teams, chairs and chief executives of public bodies, academics and think tanks. We received written responses to a discussion paper and also captured views and ideas at a series of workshops.

Published 19 February 2013
Last updated 19 March 2018 + show all updates
  1. Links updated.
  2. Links updated.
  3. Text updated.
  4. Added information on the classification review.
  5. Updated guidance page
  6. Added information on Public Bodies 2015
  7. Added update on progress as at November 2014 and link to Public Bodies 2014.
  8. Added information on the Classification Review.
  9. Added link to Public Bodies Reform Strategy and guidance on triennial reviews.
  10. Sponsorship section added.
  11. Added links to updated guidance under 'Implementation' section
  12. First published.