MORE BARBECUE THAN BONFIRE
Tories attack Quangos
Keys are accountability, effectiveness and control over expenditure
The government says there are 790 quangos. Others , including the Taxpayers’ Alliance, say there are well over 1,000.
As a result the estimated cost varies from £34bn to about £65 bn.
David Cameron promised on 6 July, at a Reform think tank event, to take a ‘forensic’ look at all Quangos to establish whether they are necessary .He has asked shadow cabinet members to look at the quangos within their remit and to report back to him. Reform had offered a hit list of Quangos that ought to be abolished at the time of the last Budget.
He believes that much of the frustration with politics and politicians is because people feel that they cannot influence government not least because so much of Government operates through arms length, near to Government quangos which are not accountable to the electorate. Indeed, it is not at all clear to whom they are accountable.
In short people are fed up with bureaucrats lording it over them, not least because one cant get rid of them if the fail, which is not uncommon.
Governments have progressively devolved responsibilities to them as executive agencies and they have become more politically active, actually formulating policy.
But, electors feel that they have no control over them, although their decisions increasingly affect all our lives.
Cameron said “Too many state actions, services and decisions are carried out by people who cannot be voted out by the public, by organisations that feel no pressure to answer for what happens – in a way that is completely unaccountable.” They control at least £65 billion of public money and 68 quango heads earn more than the Prime Minister, Cameron said.
He wants three basic questions to be asked of quangos to see if they are fit for purpose. First are they absolutely necessary in terms of the specialist technical support and advice they bring to public service delivery? Next, do they fulfil an important, politically impartial role (which couldn’t be fulfilled by a Government department).
And ,finally are they important in establishing objective facts that can help inform policy and practice? I would simplify this to- are they vital for regulation, first, and second do they have a measurable impact on the consumer of public services, ie in education can they demonstrate that they impact on the learner .
If not either abolish them or if you feel the service is vital for instance in providing independent data, free from political manipulation, which is so common nowadays, then look to the private and not for profit sectors. Though reluctant to be drawn into naming ineffective quangos he did mention the schools’ Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA), which develops the national curriculum. It will be closed. But another quango, Ofqual, the exams regulator, which has already proved controversial, would be retained although its work will be closely monitored. The Tory approach leaves a question mark over the alphabet soup of quango acronyms-the TDA, NCSL, SSAT etc. The lack of accountability of quangos is unanswerable. To get even the most basic of information from many of them you have to invoke the freedom of information act. They fall back on the old oft used ‘commercial in confidence’ defence .
Few benchmark their performance and, or ,measure their ouputs in any meaningful sense . They fail to publish on the web regular, informative annual reports listing the remuneration of their executives, how they meet their targets, which more often than not they have set themselves. They increasingly compete too with the private and not for profit sectors for public contracts but are grant funded, unlike their competitors ,who have to take on greater commercial risk. Many are granted contracts without the need to compete in competitive tenders and when they do compete they can conceal the real cost of their bids , cross subsidise and often enjoy access to information for their bids, denied to their competitors, so giving them unfair advantage. Their presence in the market moreover stunts market development and increases the risk of market entry. It’s all an almighty dogs’ dinner of a mess.
There is little accountability, transparency or competitive neutrality in evidence. Quango heads just don’t get it. They might if their expenses were to be looked at a little more closely.
We don’t see much evidence of the pursuit of best (or public) value either. The Tory approach has much merit. But they are already signalling their caution.
Indeed, it is hard to envisage a wholesale rationalisation of the quangocracy, although this is long overdue and the right approach in our current economic circumstances. However, it will require huge political will and leadership to push through reforms against vested producer interests and the Tories will have to take on the public service unions. The big question is -do they have the bottle?