Why do institutions fail?

Sarah Spencer
Sarah Spencer

Sarah Spencer (Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, University of Oxford) discuss her article ‘Context, institution or accountability? Exploring the factors that shape the performance of national human rights and equality bodies‘, part of the new issue of Policy & Politics.

In recent months alone we need look no further than the Co-op bank, the UK Border Agency or Staffordshire hospital to find a systemic breakdown in performance, raising the question: why do institutions fail? Where failure is too harsh a judgement, we may nevertheless ask why we so regularly see a marked gap in the private and state sectors between public expectations and the outputs and outcomes that are achieved.

Is it an internal matter – a failure of leadership, poor management, or inadequate resources? If those factors play a part, do they merely reflect structural flaws in systems of regulation and accountability? Or should we be looking more to the external context: a hostile economic or political climate perhaps, or inflated public and media expectations which mean that the institution operates in an environment in which will inevitably and unfairly be seen to fail?

Teasing out the balance of factors that account for the performance of any institution is no easy matter where so many variables are at play and few impacts are measurable. It is necessary, however, if we are to avoid making simplistic assumptions that poor leadership is to blame, let’s say, or harsh budget cuts.

One set of institutions provides ripe territory for exploring these questions: statutory human rights and equality bodies. Britain’s troubled Equality and Human Rights Commission has not been alone in facing criticism of its performance since it was established in 2007: that of its counterparts in Northern Ireland and Ireland have likewise come under fire. The literature on the proliferating number of these bodies world wide, moreover, suggests the challenges they are facing, internally and externally, display some common themes.

Colin Harvey (Queen’s University, Belfast) and I attempt to throw light on this conundrum in ‘Context, institution or accountability? Exploring the factors that shape the performance of national human rights and equality bodies’. A comparative analysis of the six statutory human rights and (or) equality bodies in the UK and Ireland, in which we have both also served as Commissioners, draws on the experiences of 23 other informants who have been closely engaged in the work of these bodies alongside scrutiny of their statutes, secondary legislation and operational reports.

The establishment of these institutions over the past two decades coincided with a renewed confidence in arms’ length regulatory bodies using standard setting, monitoring and enforcement to improve the performance of others. The UN, Council of Europe and European Commission, within their respective mandates, encouraged the global expansion of such bodies, setting minimum standards of independence, accountability and mandate with which they should comply. Expectations in civil society often ran high in the early days, anticipating a step change in the protection of human rights and equality of opportunity. What happened next, the varying strengths (evident in many cases) but also the limitations in delivery require an explanation.

We found no single factor accounted for the performance of the six bodies in our study but differing combinations of positive and negative factors. Comparative analysis was revealing: for instance the more supportive political context in Scotland than that in Northern Ireland, and the accountability of the Scottish Human Rights Commission to the legislature rather than, as for the other bodies, to the executive. Institutional architecture, statutory duties, powers and resources differ markedly, as do the significance of relationships with the UN and European bodies on the one hand and civil society groups on the other.

Beyond the significance of each institution’s varying remit, powers, structure and resource constraints, leadership and effective management were found to be crucial factors, alongside the political acumen necessary to steer the ship through turbulent times. The institutions may take some comfort from the fact that it is those factors which are those most within their control.

Dr Sarah Spencer CBE
Senior Fellow
Centre on Migration, Policy and Society
University of Oxford

Context, institution or accountability? Exploring the factors that shape the performance of national human rights and equality bodies‘, by Sarah Spencer and Colin Harvey, is part of the Policy & Politics January 14 issue (volume 42, number 1) and is available on Ingenta.