Principals and agents, or principals and stewards? Australian arm’s length agencies’ perceptions of arm’s length government instruments

Sandra van Thiel, AJ Smullen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
16 Downloads (Pure)


After the large-scale creation of arm’s length agencies by governments around the globe, these governments now face the dilemma of how to manage, steer or control these arm’s length agencies. Different instruments have been developed, based on either of two theoretical models: principal-agent theory or stewardship theory. Both are based on economic models of man with a principal charging an agent or a steward with a task. Principal-agent theory is based on the principal distrusting the agent to perform as agreed, leading to a need for extra monitoring and control. Stewardship theory is based on trust, and requires very different instruments to manage at arm’s length. Using the perspective of arm’s length bodies at federal level in Australia, we will describe how they perceive the instruments that have been implemented by their portfolio departments to manage and control them. Using survey data (N = 89), we will test which of the two models is used most often in this country, one of the frontrunners in agencification. Results show that arm’s length agencies are more inclined to take a stewardship position, while a mixture of instruments from the principal-agent and stewardship model is applied. This could lead to problematic relationships.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)758-784
JournalPublic Performance and Management Review
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
for the project, in particular data collection and collation, was supported by Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek, Grant/Award Number: NWO vidi 425-14-008 and Crawford School of Public Policy at ANU. The authors would like to acknowledge the constructive comments of the anonymous reviewers. Research Assistants included Ella Weisbrot, Maria Sandoval Gusman, Dr Cathy Clutton, and, the project was co-led with Associate Paul Fawcett, University of Melbourne.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s). Published with license by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.


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