Whoever coined the term ‘Quango’ certainly didn’t know the first thing about PR. The image that the word conjures – slow, lumbering, useless organizations – has plagued them ever since and renders what can be useful, necessary bodies – whatever the excesses of the Government Hospitality Advisory Committee for the Purchase of Wine – vulnerable to the predations of ministers wanting to grab headlines by being tough on ‘bureaucracy’.
Quangos are easy to caricature, but by and large they perform important functions: they were after all, set up for a specific reason. The British Waterways Agency has presided over the fastest and most complete improvement of our rivers, lakes, canals and docks in our history; Visit Britain sells our country as a holiday destination; Ofcom maintains a standard of decency on our airwaves while OfWat polices the companies that provide vital utilities services. It is tempting to paint the growth of quangos as a bloated state expanding out of control, but it is more to do with the fact that the society government is supposed to govern has become increasingly complex; there are more potentially harmful new technologies to regulate, more media outlets to ensure stick to agreed standards of responsible conduct and more intense social problems to ease. The Tories are themselves partly to blame: The biggest expansion in the number of quangos came after the privatizations of the the 1980s. Thatcher was keen to get government out of the provision of public services but soon found that it still had a responsibility to regulate those whom responsibility had been passed to.
The figure of 1,162 quangos bandied about by the Taxpayers’ Alliance is misleading. Many of them are tiny committees with small or no budgets, the abolition of which will only serve to ensure that their functions go undischarged or done poorly by people with less experience than those they replace. The bulk of funding to quangos goes to a small number of larger bodies which cannot possibly be abolished because they provide vital functions, hence why the Commons Public Administration Committee this week ridiculed the claim by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude that his cuts would save as much as £1bn. The claim that Quangos are undemocratic is also misleading.
A democratic, transparent society requires some functions to be depoliticized and separated from central government, the justification which was offered by the last Conservative government when it set up so many of the ‘Next Steps’ agencies its successor is now trying to abolish. Even the Coalition has tacitly admitted this in one of its very first acts back in May – the establishment of the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Some bodies have been axed without almost no reference to the value of their activities. For a government concerned about the lack of accountability in public life and the level of public spending, it was sheer stupidity to axe the Audit Commission – an organization which holds both ministers and other quangos to account for the effectiveness and value for money of their policies. The total cost to the central government – £28m each year – is dwarfed by the spending on ineffective policies its reports have helped end. Ironically-for a government cutting quangos in the name of accountability – it has axed 200 such bodies with almost no consultation of key stakeholders or – more importantly – of the public: The Audit Commission was axed directly after a confrontation between it and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles over how much its new Chief Executive should be paid.
Not only is it a myth that quangos are completely unaccountable to ministers – they were created by Parliament are funded by the Treasury and are thus subject to them – but merging them into government departments does not necessarily make those who carry out government functions more accountable. As part of the civil service their staff may be more accountable to ministers, but they will be even less accountable to the public as it is easier to lobby a distinct body with dedicated public relations departments than an obscure, faceless part of Whitehall, one of the key criticisms made by the CPAC this week: “Stakeholders and civil society play an important role in providing challenge and criticism of public bodies on a day-to-day basis, and it is easier for them to perform this role when they have a clearly identified body to engage with, not a homogeneous central department”. As such, it is not self evident that removing quangos automatically opens up a space in with the ‘Big Society’ can flourish.
States and modes of governance change naturally all the time – the British state is different now than it was in the 1950s because the society it governs is different – but changing the way we govern ourselves for the sole reason of cost is not only highly artificial but is being done almost independently of what is required of government and thus risks leaving the British state less unable to deal with future challenges.