Poor public sector productivity places quangos in the frame


Close to 90% of our government is carried out now not by ministerial departments, but delegated to a vast quangocracy,  made up of hybrid  organizations,  operating below the waterline, with limited supervision and scrutiny by Parliament .

It is bizarre that in this new age of transparency  our Parliamentarians ,whose job is to scrutinize the Executive and hold it to account, find their expenses are under detailed scrutiny, while  those who run  our quangocracy, the  delivery agents,   largely escape any such scrutiny. Do they deliver public value? Who knows? 

 They operate in various guises and  under differing legal umbrellas , some are statutory public bodies, others charities and some  even  operate as  private companies (allowing them to pretend  that they are not quangos, to avoid too close a scrutiny of the way they spend our money -think SSAT) all with different standards of transparency and disclosure of information.

One thing they have in common though is that they receive taxpayers money and implement Government policy, but are not, for the most part,  being held directly accountable for their outputs (often left free, incidentally,  to measure their own performance) .  Matthew Flinders 2007 book Delegated Governance and the British State: Walking Without Order is a real eye- opener. Flinders  argues that the British state is ‘walking without order’ due to a general acceptance of the logic of delegation without any detailed or principled consideration of the administrative of democratic consequences of this process. He reveals that there are about 5,000 quangos nationwide and some 1,500 centrally.

 For sure, Quangos do some good work. They can organise lavish conferences for starters. They help identify and disseminate best practice. But it is not always clear why, if there is such demand for their services, not for profits and the private sector couldn’t do their work just as well and at less cost. Too often quangos are given work that is not put out to open tender. How does this secure best value for taxpayers? Indeed securing best value for taxpayers is not, it would   seem, high on their list of priorities. Clearly it should be.

 Quangos bring in outside expertise, create a buffer zone round political hot potatoes and cut ministerial overload. They also provide a useful network to  enable Ministers to dispense political patronage as they appoint quango heads. (So much for merit, and recruiting the best manager for the job).  Quangos are responsible for ensuring that centrally driven initiatives are implemented. But many of these have been seen to have failed . They are at arms length from Departments so this  means that if things  do go badly, which they often do, Ministers can create space between them and the offending Quango. In this game of smoke and mirrors and passing the buck the one casualty is accountability. Historically, opposition parties always say that there will be a bonfire of quangos when they win power but the reality unfortunately can be   rather more prosaic. In truth, more barbecue than bonfire.   The Tories cut the quango count by 50 per cent when last in power.  However, the cost of the remaining bodies went from £6bn to £22bn. This Government in its first 10 years in power, then created 300 new bodies as the public sector expanded and the private (wealth creating) sector contracted.(still happening by the way)

 The education sector, of course, has its own alphabet soup of acronyms making up its own quangocracy. But given that we are currently in dire economic circumstances, and public finances have been shot through, there is a growing feeling that the time has come to seriously look at the cost effectiveness of these quangos. Indeed, whoever wins office next year , it is hard not to see how  they will avoid making (big) cuts. Sue Cameron of the FT informs us that the Government (and Tories) have been studying Matthew Flinders book in some detail. The Truth is that they know there is wastage and inefficiencies; Cameron has talked about it in some detail. But knowing it is the easy part. Knowing where to apply the scalpel, without significant political fall out is the hard bit.

More generally our public services have experienced a real terms funding increase of 55 per cent, financed by an increase of 5 per cent of GDP in public expenditure since 2000. Yet public sector productivity has continued to fall: by 3.4 per cent over the last ten years, compared to the private sector’s 27.9 per cent productivity gain over the same period. Some of the blame for this rests with the bloated quangocracy. On education productivity the ONS said on 1 December that the volume of education inputs – how many resources the government puts in – rose by 33 per cent between 1996 and 2008. The volume of outputs – how much the state gets in return – also increased by 33 per cent. As a result, productivity – a measure of efficiency that divides output by input – stayed the same. Implicit in the ONS  report is that increased spending should have led to a sustained rise in productivity and that standards in schools ought to have increased by a significantly bigger margin than they have.

 Measuring productivity in public services can be a challenge and is  an inexact science (though  apparently we pride ourselves in being world leaders in public service productivity measurement) , but there are very few observers out there who believe that the massive investment in education (it rose, at current prices, from £29 billion in 1996 to £63.9 billion last year — an annual rate of increase of 6.8 per cent.) has delivered the expected returns  and the education quangocracy cannot avoid sharing some of  the blame for this .

So, fundamental reforms seem likely. The fact is that, more than piecemeal reform, we need a transformation in how Government does business and a debate about where the boundaries of the state should lie. The challenge is to deliver more with less, getting more resources to the frontline by eliminating intermediary organizations and all processes that do not add value. So where does that leave some of our quangos?




Main area of concern is area reviews


Ofsted received a critical triple whammy this week.

  First, Ofsted’s ex chief inspector, Sir Mike Tomlinson, suggested that the body is overstretched ,after it took on the role of inspecting children’s services.  Tomlinson told the Guardian on 23 November: “The question needs to be asked and answered as to whether Ofsted has the appropriate skills and experience to carry out its agenda. Inspection systems that rely too heavily on data and tick-box systems is not what we need. I worry we are heading that way.”

 Secondly, John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, challenged the way Ofsted has added to pressure on schools. He said: ‘It’s brought in a climate of great anxiety because you don’t know whether the inspector will trick you on safeguarding.’

 Then the Association of Directors of Children’s Services issued a statement arguing that   the current inspection regime was ‘not fit for purpose’.  They want Ofsted to clarify how judgments are reached in a range of inspection frameworks (child protection, schools, children’s homes) and in the evaluation of serious case reviews. They also want Ofsted to identify problems facing service delivery nationally and use this knowledge to inform the development of national policy, rather than criticizing local authorities for problems outside of their control. In addition they want Ofsted to improve connections between the inspectorates involved in the Comprehensive Area Assessment so that the quality of services are consistently judged across a local area.

 The main focus of criticism falls on Ofsted’s local area inspections. The charge is that the current inspection model, including the Comprehensive Area Assessment, is based on a flawed methodology, wastes time and resources and fails to describe local authority performance in a way that the public can understand. They go on to say that “the time is ripe” to explore a new model that addresses these flaws.  What seems to have prompted this genuine anger is the annual performance profile and rating, drafts of which have been sent to local authorities before publication in mid‐December.  The performance profile seeks to reduce the results of numerous inspections and data collection to four short paragraphs and to arrive at an overall score.

 However, Kim Bromley‐Derry, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said:  “To try and describe the wide range of services provided for children and young people in one side of A4 is ridiculous in itself, but worse, in many of the examples that we have seen, there are sentences that don’t make sense even when you understand the jargon. I just can’t see how it will help the public to understand what we do and how well we do it.”

In a statement the Local Government Association pitches in too ,with calls on Ofsted to set out a new improvement plan to win back the public’s confidence. It accuses the watchdog of being too concerned about its own reputation and so punitive in inspections of child protection services that it has prompted a significant rise of children being taken into care – an increase of 9% in the last year. These increases are putting the systems that protect children under extra pressure and making it harder to identify the children at the greatest risk of harm, the LGA claims.

  Critics charge that Ofsted has become too big, bureaucratic and unwieldy stretching its resources and expertise too thin. There are particular concerns over its inspections of social services departments where its inspections appear to have badly failed recently in a couple of authorities, at least ,to identify systemic weaknesses. But there are also some criticisms highlighted in its approach to schools inspections. Lawnswood school in Leeds, a rapidly improving school with a good reputation, was penalised for instance  after a survey suggested that 1.3% of parents reported their child did not “feel safe” there. A second school was judged to be inadequate because inspectors said the fence around the playground was low enough for children to be abducted and another failed because inspectors were offered coffee before they were asked for identification. The attacks came as the DCSF Select committee is shortly to deliver its report on accountability. It is thought that the report will say that Ofsted’s inspectors aren’t trained properly and inspections focus too much on exam data. The view is that schools in poor areas were “aggrieved” that even when they had improved they could still be failed because of low exam results.

 The Tories seem to agree with the analysis that Ofsted has just become too big for its own good and should get back to the basics. They intend scaling down Ofsteds activities, giving it a narrower, better targeted focus and remit, should they win power. 

 To add to its current travails Ofsted has recently had to admit making a “deeply regrettable error” by not disclosing an inspection report to the court reviewing Sharon Shoesmith’s sacking.  The 70-page handwritten notes were from an inspection after Peter’s death.  High Court Judge Mr Justice Foskett gave Ofsted 14 days to ensure no other documents in the case were withheld. Ofsted said it had “nothing to hide”. 

 A spokesman for Ofsted sought to  play down the criticism: ‘We are disappointed to hear the ADCS criticisms but have to say that their views just don’t accord with what we are being told by directors and frontline social workers who have actually experienced our children’s services inspections. The feedback we are getting is much more positive.’  In the meantime, the Conservatives seem to  have abandoned plans to introduce more “dawn raid” school inspections.The party announced last month that it intended to free up Ofsted’s time to allow it to “extend ‘no-notice’ inspections” if it wins next year’s general election.



 New research suggests children are positive about their education and value it


 The government, we know, is keen to encourage continuation in education post 16 and to reduce inequalities between different groups. Children are known to make early decisions about their educational intentions.

In fact, what they say aged 11 is a good prediction of their actual educational behaviour aged 16, which would seem to suggest that they should have access to professional advice earlier than they do now. Educational choices vary by social background, which some researchers argue is due to differences in children’s values and attitudes towards school and how they relate this to their future in education and employment. However, new research from the Economic and Social Research Council – Children’s Perceptions of the Value of Education: A Study of Early Orientations to School suggests there are grounds for optimism, given that a vast majority of children are positive about their education and there is little evidence of an anti-education culture among children whatever their social backgrounds. Most pupils who participated in the ESRC study had clear ideas about their future. Above all they wanted to secure a ‘good’ job. And children saw education as the means to achieve this, possibly via university.

 Attitudes to school were generally very positive, both as something which would be useful in the future and as enjoyable in the present. Three-fifths of pupils planned to remain in education after 16. One-fifth planned to leave, with the remainder undecided. What is perhaps most encouraging about the findings of this report was the overall view that there were “few meaningful differences in attitudes to education according to children’s backgrounds. The children had definite ideas about their future in education and employment.”

However, the report found that there was confusion about later stages in the education system disproportionately among children from certain backgrounds. Crucially, it suggested that providing relevant information as soon as pupils start secondary school would address this issue. But what reasons do children give for wanting to leave school at 16?

There are three main reasons. Firstly, a few children thought that school was not for them personally, even though they thought school was important in principle. Secondly, some children were confused about the options available to them and how these were tied to different employment outcomes. (hence the call for earlier advice) And a third group had well-defined plans to leave school to begin skilled manual jobs. http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/ViewAwardPage.aspx?awardnumber=RES-062-23-0204