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Reforming the Quango State

 

This short research note has been produced to mark the publication of the Public Bodies 2012 document by the Cabinet Office. It provides a précis of some of the initial research findings that have been produced by a large three-year project that is tracing and assessing the Public Bodies Reform Programme.

The politics of quangocide is rarely easy and many previous governments have discovered the flame-resistant qualities of public bodies when it comes to igniting a ‘bonfire of the quangos’. And yet the Coalition Government’s approach to the ‘quango problem’ has been both swift and far-reaching. Swift in the sense that over nine-hundred quangos were reviewed within just months of assuming office; far-reaching in the sense that many bodies have been abolished and the majority reformed in some respect.

In addition to this there is no doubt that the role and capacity of the Cabinet Office has been transformed in relation to the control of public bodies.  There is also an active discussion across Whitehall about how best to manage arm’s length delivery agencies, more of which can be expected under the recently announced Civil Service Reform Plan. From ‘loose, loose to tight, loose’ is now the dominant phrase in Whitehall when it comes to managing their relationship with arm’s-length bodies.

Looking back at the initial phase of this research it is possible to identify three core insights. First, the Public Bodies Reform Programme suggests that new governments can have transformative impacts on the structure of the state and with limited disruption, even at a time of considerable organisational upheaval. This (secondly) requires strong political leadership and the ability to ‘hit the ground running’ with a clear sense of what the reform agenda must deliver. Finally, in this case the Coalition Government was aided by the existence of a reform climate in which many departments had already begun to review and reform their arm’s-length bodies.

Although the reforms are by no means cosmetic in nature it is important to note that a large part of the claimed ‘quango cull’ relate to the abolition of a large number of very small bodies. In addition, some advisory quangos have now become ‘committees of experts’, making them exempt from rules on transparency and thus removing their deliberations from public view. In other cases, mergers and transfers of functions to government and other arm’s-length bodies have been important ways of reducing the ‘quango count’.

Looking forward, the Public Bodies reform agenda is entering a critical phase. Despite net reductions in numbers, quangos remain an important vehicle for policy delivery, with several created since May 2010. Select committees are preparing to scrutinise the Ministerial Orders under the Public Bodies Act, the second wave of triennial reviews is about to embrace a number of much larger and more salient quangos than were examined under the first wave. In addition to this the Government must somehow rebuild relationships with a large number of quango chairs and board members who feel slightly bruised and battered by the recent review process.

Moreover questions remain about the appropriate balance between independence and control for quangos. At a recent seminar on the topic at the Institute for Government the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake, defined the new ‘tight, loose’ relationship as the ‘tourniquet model’ but then reminded the audience ‘that we all know what happens if a tourniquet is too tight and kept on for too long!’ Questions concerning appropriate relationships remain in flux but must soon be left to settle down against an organisational landscape that is reform weary.

What’s missing from the current debate is any appreciation of the similarities and synergies between the Government’s Civil Service Reform agenda and the Public Bodies Reform Programme. At present, both initiatives appear to be running in parallel rather than in tandem despite the fact that both seemed forged on a belief in a search for alternative models of service delivery. This is a telling point: quangos as they have been designed and established in the past (i.e. as Non-Departmental Public Bodies) may well be out of fashion but new forms of delegation and hiving-off are the order of the day. In the National Health Service, for example, one set of arm’s-length bodies is being replaced with another (and all overseen by a new super-quango – ‘the NHS Commissioning Board’).

The bottom-line is that the Coalition Government’s Public Bodies reform agenda is the most ambitious attempt to reduce and reform the number and cost of quangos for at least a century. Pre-election rhetoric has been diluted by an element of realpolitik and has led to a mixture of abolition and reform. Whether the Coalition Government has a real appetite for abolishing quangos will only become clear as the reform agenda reaches the larger and more salient bodies during the remainder of this Parliament.

 

Professor Matthew Flinders notes, ‘Early accusations that the coalitions ‘bonfire of the quangos’ had turned into little more than a ‘clammy Sunday afternoon bonfire’ tended to produce more heat than light. The evidence is beginning to suggest a more complex picture in which Whitehall is exerting greater control over the bodies it sponsors; the flip-side, however, is how to maintain healthy relationships with those people managing the bodies on a day-to-day basis’. 

Professor Chris Skelcher notes, ‘Quango-hunting is a popular sport – but reform has been at some cost to transparency and independent expertise in policy advice and delivery.’

Prof. Matthew Flinders can be contacted on 07773 144 155 or via m.flinders@sheffield.ac.uk

Prof. Chris Skelcher can be contacted on 07958 395904 or via c.k.skelcher@bham.ac.uk

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