EDUCATION QUANGOS-MAKE THEM MORE ACCOUNTABLE

 

EDUCATION QUANGOS

For those left-urgent need  for  reforms to ensure transparency, accountability and competitive neutrality

Maude review-a real  opportunity for change

Comment

The Governments review of quangos  aimed to ensure, first that their  functions were deemed necessary, secondly to establish whether those functions should properly be carried out at arm’s length to government. There  are of course two agendas at work. Cost- cutting and making quangos more transparent and  accountable, ensuring that they deliver Public Value.  If the  quango carries out a highly technical activity, is required to be politically impartial or needs to act independently to establish facts, then it is right for it to remain outside direct ministerial accountability, says the Government. But it must still be accountable. And this is where the Government’s review is incomplete.  Francis Maude is due to report early  next year on how to make quangos more accountable. Currently  many quangos do not publish accounts, and if they do they offer  no clear benchmarks  to measure their outputs . There  is no central list of quangos and there are myriad different types,  with different  legal statuses. Some even escape the provisions of the  Freedom of information Act, though they spend our money on our behalf, so  its all a bit of a mess.  Some are limited  companies, others charities, others non-statutory public bodies and so on . The official list of non-departmental public bodies stands at  679 bodies but excludes a number of organisations that are clearly quangos, like the SSAT, which has for reasons presumably of political expediency , rather than consistency,  been excluded from the quango list. Reassuringly  though  all   public bodies will be subject to a rigorous triennial review, to ensure that the previous pattern of public bodies often outliving the purpose for which they were established is not repeated. They will be expected to become more open, accountable and efficient.

 

There has been a  long standing  but unmet need for publicly funded bodies to demonstrate that they deliver value for money and   do not compete unfairly with commercial, non-subsidised competitors. Quangos, which are under pressure to  find other income streams are, if anything, increasing their presence in the market place. Too many,  though, have been cavalier about the requirement  to explain what they do and how they deliver public value. Some have almost entirely ignored the Nolan Principles.  Cross subsidies are widespread in the education market from organisations such as the SSAT, NCSL,TDA  and British Council. They can absorb or conceal overheads which is not possible in a commercial operation. They support substantial infrastructures from their core funding which they can, and frequently do, deploy to demonstrate capacity to deliver new projects, with apparent (though not real) cost advantages.  Too often contracts are not put out to tender-which seems designed to protect the vested  interests of quangos rather than taxpayers. (The Treasury is supposed to be challenging vested interests)  They also exploit their privileged access to information, which affords them a competitive advantage. Private and not for profit providers have found literally to their cost that in  many  childrens services information relating to pricing, costs and performance is not readily available or accessible .Vital information is often designated ‘commercial in confidence’. This obscures the true economic costs associated with service provision and makes it difficult for potential new entrants to determine whether they can and want to provide services within the market. An example of the  exploitation of privileged access to information can be found at the  NCSL  which has a captive audience as every teacher aspiring to headship has to complete NPQH as it is a mandatory pre-requisite – these  teachers names then go onto a data base  that is then accessed  for ‘selling’ other products and services. Commercial traders are  of course constrained by data protection laws that preclude  them from blanket e-mailing. The SSAT  too can similarly ‘trade’ to their membership of Specialist schools and Academies. 90% of Schools  now have some form of  Specialism (however liberally defined) and the SSAT sells support services to these schools, with competitors, who  might compete on  both price and quality,  largely  excluded in practice  from this protected market .Protected markets,  affording privileges to one provider,  we know  are extremely unlikely to deliver value for money.

 

Politicians, thus far,  have failed to address the issue of competitive neutrality, despite the damaging effects this has on the education markets both here and abroad .Quangos presence in these markets  distorts competition, while undermining  ‘contestability’ which was supposed to be a guiding principle, informing the way  public and  near to government organisations behave in the market. The main premise of the theory of contestable markets is that even with a single provider, the threat of other providers entering the market may force a monopoly provider to contain costs to competitive levels or maintain a specific level of quality in the service delivered, as long as the barriers to market  entry and exit are not significant. It is arguable though  that barriers to entry imposed by the presence of subsidised providers are very significant.  It is no coincidence that UK based education providers are seeking income streams abroad (often finding quangos competing with them there too ,and equally  unfairly).   Unfair competition puts at risk the whole principle of the best provider delivering services, which means that the consumers of that service ,  which in education, is largely  children and parents, lose out.

 

The Government must give careful consideration in developing this new framework  to the  interlinked issues surrounding competition, transparency, accountability and the delivery of public value   within the quangocracy.  And Education service suppliers should make their views known sooner rather than later  to Ministers and officials responsible for developing this new framework.

 

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