Quango bashing is all the rage today. And why not? There are more than 700 of them and they spend between £15 and £60 billion depending how you do the calculations. It is good housekeeping every few years to check that these bodies are serving a purpose and I'm sure they can save money just like any other organisation.
But exactly because quango bashing is such an easy way for politicians to look tough and be popular there are some things to bear in mind as the parties try to outdo each other.
First, the attack on quangos as 'undemocratic' is not as clear as it seems. Generally, the alternative to a quango performing a function is a Government department doing it. But ministers can be just as easily be held accountable for what goes on in the quangos they oversee as in the departments they run. Indeed, arguably, by having a clearer mandate and definition it is easier to hold a quango to account (they each have their own boards, annual reports etc) than a sub-division of a huge department.
Second, when we discuss how much quangos 'cost' or how much would be saved by closing them down, it is vital to distinguish between quango as an entity and what they do. If you close down the quango but want its function to continue then the saving is not the quango budget but in how much less it costs to perform that same function through national or local government (or through another quango). Many quangos were set up precisely because it was thought to be more efficient and effective to conduct state functions at arms length.
Third, quangos are sometimes set up as an alternative to regulation or direct spending. This is why they are so attractive and why the Conservatives are simultaneously promising to reduce their number while also, in other parts of their policy, talking about creating new ones.
Fourth, beware quango bashing based on the argument that they haven't achieved their objectives. So, for example, RDAs are ridiculed because they haven't closed the North South divide. Sometimes quangos are set up as an alternatives to action; so RDA s were arguably a sop to the regional agenda which legitimised the Government actually doing very little to intervene in the economy as a whole. And, of course, we can't test the counter-factual; what would have happened had the quangos not existed. Going back to RDAs, maybe regional imbalances would have been even worse.
The big challenge for Government is to stop doing things or to do things massively more efficiently. Getting rid of quangos may or may not contribute. Still, neither major party is facing up to the scale of the public sector spending cuts and, as the Sunday Times correctly reported yesterday, despairing civil servants are taking matters in to their own hands. 'Quango bashing' is clever politics but, too often, lazy policy making.
Fabian Wallace-Stephens (Foresight Lead)
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