Cutting down the quango state
Will it deliver power to the people?
In opposition David Cameron promised to cut back the ‘quango state’, over 700 autonomous non-departmental bodies blamed for the lack of accountability in politics and much of the waste in state spending. Now with over 80 extra-departmental bodies to be abolished, and more threatened, the much promised bonfire seems at last to be underway. Scrapping these organisations is not just a matter of saving money, it is a core part of th…e government’s strategy to take power away from the centralised state and give it to the front-line. In education the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) is to be abolished as schools are given more freedom to devise their own curricula. In the NHS, half of all non-governmental bodies are to be abolished while more responsibility is given to general practitioners.
History would suggest however, that culling the quangocracy is not as straightforward as it sounds. Both Thatcher and Blair came to power promising the tackle the burgeoning growth of non-governmental organisations and both ended up creating new ones. Similarly the new government has already created new quangos such as the Office for Budgetary Responsiblity. What looks like a bonfire is too often a re-structuring of unelected bodies. But might quangos in fact be the best way for the state to carry out its functions? Will G.P.s for example really take on more administrative responsibilities or employ the same sacked managers to do it instead? Similarly if Whitehall takes on the responsibities of abolished quangos, will this improve accountablity when the priorities of these unelected bodies have already been decided by politicians? It is not only HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) that demands that University departments prove their ‘relevance’, for instance, but the political elite as a whole. So it may be the case that politicians are hiding behind quangos not only in setting them up, but also in attacking them.
So will the ‘bonfire’ at last make the state answerable to the people, or is the problematisation of quangos itself a way for politicians to avoid accountability? Will taking an axe to the acronym forest deliver control to health and educational professionals or impede these vital services from functioning? If quangos are the burden on the state that they are often said to be, then why has getting rid of them historically proven to be so difficult?
Toby Marshall, Institute of Ideas Education Forum
Brid Hehir, Senior NHS Manager
One by one, the quangos are abolished. But at what cost?, Nigel Morris, Independent, 27th July 2010
Quangos, Lucinda Mae, House of Commons, 24th June 2010
Secret diary of a civil servant: ‘The coalition’s culling of quangos is bad for democracy’, Observer 1st August 2010
Careful with that Quangos axe, Cameron, Ian Magee, Guardian 16th July 2010