Friday, 22 January 2010

Quangocide

'Quangos' are a popular target for public expenditure cuts and certainly there has been justifiable concern about the salaries paid in some of these bodies. The term 'quango' was originally invented by Tony Barker of Essex University to refer to 'quasi non-governmental organisations', i.e., private bodies that were 'chosen instruments' for public purposes such as the National Housebuilders Registration Council. In contemporary use, 'quangos' are what used to be called 'quasis' or Non Departmental Public Bodies in official terminology.

Their numbers and size have increased as a result of two main trends which have reinforced one another. First, the move towards the 'regulatory state' so ably traced by Mick Moran, reflecting in turn a more risk averse society and the demands of the media that 'something be done' every time there is some kind of scandal which usually means setting up a new regulatory agency. Another driver is the European Union which is a regulatory state par excellence.

Second, the move towards depoliticisation which tries to take awkward decisions away from ministers and place them in a more technocratic setting. NICE, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, would be a classic example but it has not really succeeded in depoliticising difficult and often inherently emotional choices about spending on drugs, particularly for the terminally ill.

One really needs to ask three questions about quangos:

1. Should the task be performed by government at all?
2. Is it better performed by a public agency rather than a government department? (a trend which started in the 1970s and gathered pace in the 1980s).
3. How can one secure accountability? (This involves not just conventional accountability to Parliament but also accountability to stakeholders).

My direct experience of these bodies is principally in the area of environmental policy where agencies are carrying out tasks that the public seems to want, e.g., cleaning up beaches or polluted rivers or controlling the use of potentially toxic substances. These are not tasks that can be done on the cheap as they require at a minimum techically skilled individuals and often people educated up to PhD standard.

My general impression is that in the health and education area there are bodies that overlap or duplicate one another. Since the Hampton Review, there has been an effort to merge quangos, although the resultant efficiency gains are often not as great as was hoped for.

When one is talking of 17 per cent real terms cuts in public expenditure over three years, quangos cannot expect to escape, but one also needs a sensible debate about what they should be doing and how they should be doing it.

2 comments:

Rob said...

You note that the move toward having more QUANGOs has gone hand in hand with the move towards a more risk averse society where the media demands something is done every time a mistake is made. The same criticism has also come from opposition parties. Yet both the media and opposition criticize Labour for their compliance with these requests in that they attack the rapid expansion of QUANGOs.

You state that some have overlapping duties/functions/aims, but what do you think about the use of QUANGOs at all? Do you agree with Labour's increased use thereof or would you like to see less QUANGOS?

Wyn Grant said...

I actually sit on a quango committee myself so I may not be unbiased. However, I think there are some regulatory activities that (a) require considerable specific technical expertise and (b) do not require day-by-day interventions by ministers, indeed function better without that pressure. Having said that, I think there has been too ready a resort to the quango device under New Labour, producing some very high salaries. In this connection it is interesting to note the recent decision of the Audit Commission to cut back its top salaries.