Beware quango bashing

July 6, 2009 by
Filed under: Politics 

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.



  • Simon Watson

    Following this thread – would be interested in a take on the Canadian approach taken in the 90s and whether it has any value here. Canda cut public spending by 20% and shed 47,000 public jobs.(?) ….but I doubt the real picture is that simple.

    I have heard conflicting stories of its success, both in terms of the co-ordinated ‘one for all, and all for one’ nature of the negotiations in cabinet, and also the implementation lag that followed.


    • matthewtaylor

      Hi Simon. The Institute of Government has done some work on the Canada experience and David Halpern has written about it in the most recent Prospect

  • Liam Murray

    You’re right in theory about accountability not being diminished but not sure that holds in practice.

    Politicians of all parties have been quick to exploit that organisational distance when it suits them. In a culture where we have enough trouble establishing accountability even within the departments ministers run (we don’t see the likes of John Nott anymore!) then spreading it that thin does create problems and undermine democratic principles.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Liam. You are right that it’s a danger. Although ministers can equally do this with public bodies like Academies or NHS Trusts that are not quangos but do have devolved freedoms. But most people are in favour of this kind of devolution.

  • ad

    “Fourth, beware quango bashing based on the argument that they haven’t achieved their objectives.”

    If we cannot tell if a quango, such as the RDAs, has done any good, does that not mean that funding it is an act of faith?

    Why should we have this faith?

    • matthewtaylor

      Hi. I’m not saying you should. It’s a matter of policy judgement. I’m just saying it is logically possible that a problem can get worse and a quango can be dong a good job. Thanks for the comment

  • Joe Nutt

    My work beings me into frequent contact with a number of quangos and one of the least understood aspects of how they have worked under new labour is that they are shamelessly partisan organisations. The left has traditionally despised and criticised what they describe as the old boy network, and nepotism in what might be loosely termed the establishment. Yet under new labour quangos took this kind of behaviour to a whole new level. Woe betide anyone who even dared to attempt to debate or disagree and only applicants with flawless party credentials need apply.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Joe. This may be true but not deliberate. It may be a function of quango boards wanting to appoint people who are in sympathy with the policy of their sponsor departments and who has good networks at the top. The same thing happened under the Conservatives. Not That this excuses it.

  • Fred

    I would argue that quangos are a heuristic in the public mind for waste in much the same way that grammar schools are a heuristic for quality. Whereas people might have opinions one way or another on the utkility of the HFEA or whatever using the q word to describe it is intended to stake out territory and inhibit debate rather than to enlighten.

    The second point is that the life of these things are decided by a whole range of other matters unrelated to mainstream political debate and which operate outside the regular political cycle.

    For instance key thing with regulators is the big regulator/small regulator cycle whereby we decide the synergies between XY and Z merit their sweeping up into an uber regulator, which we then split into its previous components ten years down the line for being insufficiently specialist. It would take a skilled and long serving SoS to prevent this type of thing continuing.

  • James Hulme
  • Philip Craig

    I spend a great deal of my professional life working with or studying the strategies and programmes of the Regional Development Agencies (RDA). Often criticised, they were set the challenging long term objective of reducing disparities within and between the English regions. In terms of their role as an NDPB, they have been subject to many and varied forms of accountability – national (ministerial, NAO assessment, impact assessment) and regional (through the Government Offices) and local (local authority input through Assembly scrutiny of policy and programmes). So the picture painted, of an unaccountable Quango is somewhat different. And any critique of the RDA model must also take account of the alternative: a central government model which is too distant (and localities without the interest or competence); the need to design regionally differentiated economic solutions (to need rather than departmental target); the ability to utilise regional flexibility and expertise (including a wider range of stakeholders, including business); the building of co-ordination and capacity missing at a local level (working across boundaries and joining-up policy areas); and increased ability to benchmark (for monitoring and performance).