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Frequently Asked Questions

 

1. What is a quango?

The word quango is an abbreviation of the phrase ‘quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation’ which refers to a number of different types of body including non-departmental public bodies, executive agencies and non-ministerial departments. The precise definition of this term is, however, difficult to pin down as it is used in a range of different ways both domestically and internationally. The term arms length body is useful when seeking to understand quangos as it indicates that these bodies exist at arm’s length from the government; a position which ensures their independence whilst maintaining some degree of public accountability.

For more information see the House of Commons Library Paper on Quangos here.

2. What’s the history of quangos?

The history of quangos is often traced back to the 1970s, however these bodies have been in existence for far longer. As early as 1540 the Sewers Commission was established, a form of governance which was echoed in the creation of the Board of Excise in 1643 and the Board of Control in 1784. However, this form of governance has expanded dramatically in recent decades with the rise in New Public Management, a point recognised in the Pliatzky review (1980) which catalogued 1,500 independent advisory bodies and nearly 500 executive non-departmental organizations.

Since Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979, many governments have sought to reduce the number of, and spending on, public bodies. This has resulted in reviews such as the Pliatzky review (1980) and Ibbs review (1986), and legislation such as Labour’s Opening up Quangos green paper (1997). In the 2010 general election campaign, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives committed to further reducing the number of quangos, a commitment which was echoed in the coalition government agreement which asserted ‘we will reduce the number and cost of quangos.’

3. Don’t all governments promise to light a ‘bonfire of the quangos’?

The current review has seen a numerically and proportionately greater planned reduction in NDPBs than the previous most extensive exercise, undertaken by Pliatzky for the incoming 1979 Conservative government. In 1980 there was a 12% planned reduction of NDPBs, totalling 210 bodies, while in 2010 the planned reduction was 34% of the total, involving 249 bodies.  Reductions in both intended to be achieved through a mixture of abolition, mergers and transfers of functions to other parts of government or more widely.  Accordingly the current bonfire of the quangos is more successful than previous reform attempts in reducing NDPB headcount. For more on previous reforms under Thatcher see: Hood, C. (1980) ‘The Politics of Quangocide’. Policy and Politics. Volume 8(3): 247-265; Pliatzky, L. (1992) ‘Quangos and Agencies’, Public Administration. Volume 70 (4): 555–563.

4. Do other countries have quangos?

Quangos exist in a range of other countries. For example in Denmark it is possible to observe special public agencies; state owned companies and companies owned by local governments; public-private companies; private companies with contracts for public services; self-governing institutions; and voluntary organisations (Greve, 1996). In the Netherlands public bodies are well entrenched within the system of governance and three main types can be identified: privatised former state-owned enterprises, agentschappen and zelfstandig bestuursorgaan (ZBO – translated as autonomous administrative authority). Whilst the types of quango structure may differ from country to country, these examples indicate that actors at arms length to the government are in evidence, rendering comparative study viable.

For more see: Greve, C., Flinders, M. & van Thiel, S. (1999) Quangos – What’s in a Name? Defining Quangos from a Comparative Perspective. Governance. Volume 12(2): 129-16.

5. What’s the problem with quangos?

Quangos are often portrayed as lacking accountability or as inefficient organisations – challenges which indicate the need for review. Both of these criticisms reflect the fact that these bodies rely on public money but are not directly accountable to, or scrutinised by a minister and therefore Parliament. This relationship is seen, by some, to result in an accountability deficit and/or overly bureaucratic governance as large sums of public money are being spent without direct scrutiny. This rationale has seen the current coalition government attempt to draw functions previously done by quangos back into government departments through the creation of executive agencies.

For more see: Hirst, P. (1995) Quangos and Democratic Government. Parliamentary Affairs. Volume 48(2): 341-359.

6. Are they really that ‘bad’?

Quangos are a key part of the structure of government as they can remove controversial issues from the political arena, offer independent advice and deliver services. The importance of quangos is indicated by the fact that despite continued attempts to reduce their number governments continue to establish them. For example, under Tony Blair the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Regional Development Agencies and the Food Standards Agency were established, whilst under Cameron the Office for Budget Responsibility and the NHS Commissioning Board have been created. This suggests that whilst quangos are unpopular they remain an essential part of the machinery of government.

7. How do people get on to quangos?

Appointments to boards of quangos are made in a number of different ways. Positions are advertised by the Cabinet Office on their website, some are directly appointed by the Secretary of State or Prime Minister, whilst others are nominated or elected by stakeholders.

For more see: Flinders, M. (2009), The Politics of Patronage in the United Kingdom: Shrinking Reach and Diluted Permeation. Governance, Volume 22(4): 547–570.

8. Can I earn lots of money on a quango?

Despite assertions that most quangos are staffed by ‘fat cats’, most positions on quango boards are unpaid.

9. What has happened on quango reform since 2010 in the UK?

In 2010 the Coalition government launched a programme of quango reform. In the summer of 2010 902 bodies were identified and reviewed. This led to the publication in October 2010 of proposals to abolish 202 bodies, merge 156 and substantially reform a further 177. These changes led to the Public Bodies Bill, a piece of legislation which, whilst much amended, became law on the 19th of December 2011.

For more information on the Public Bodies Bill see the House of Commons Library paper here.

10. Where did the idea for the UK’s 2010 reform agenda originate?

The issue of public body reform has been a perpetual feature of party politics since the 1970s when Margaret Thatcher pledged to cut the number of quangos, therefore the issue of quango reform is not new. However, in the case of this specific reform programme its origins can be traced back to 2009 and David Cameron’s assertion that he would tackle the issue of quangos by increasing:

‘decentralisation, transparency and accountability we will take power away from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street.  That is how we will help fix our broken politics and drag our democracy into the post-bureaucratic age… I’m convinced that the growth of the quango state is one of the main reasons so many people feel that nothing ever changes; nothing will ever get done and that government’s automatic response to any problem is to pass the buck and send people from pillar to post until they just give up in exasperated fury.’[1]

As part of this agenda he outlined the need to assess each public body against three tests:

  1. Does the quango undertake a precise technical operation?
  2. Is it necessary for impartial decisions to be made about the distribution of taxpayers’ money?
  3. Does it fulfil a need for facts to be transparently determined, independent of political interference?

‘If the answer is ‘yes’’ Mr Cameron noted ‘it will stay. But if the quango in question does not pass any of the tests it will go, its functions assumed by departments of state and we can save a huge amount of money’.[2] It was these tests which underpinned the review process begun in 2010.

11. What were the objectives of the UK’s 2010 public bodies reform agenda?

There were many objectives outlined for the reform agenda including the desire to reduce ‘the cost of bureaucracy and the number of public bodies’, ‘to increase accountability’ and to achieve ‘efficiency, effectiveness and economy in the exercise of public functions’. The Government’s ability to meet these objectives, specifically in relation to cost, has been questioned by reports such as the National Audit Office’s Reorganising Central Government Bodies which argued that the government was currently unable to monitor whether objectives had been met.

12. Are other countries reforming their quangos?

Public body reform is evident in other countries and can, in part, be linked to the budget cuts being implemented around the world. Government is being streamlined, a point particularly evident in Ireland where significant reductions in the public bodies landscape are apparent. Elsewhere in the UK both Scotland and Wales are reducing the number of, and spending on, their public bodies.

For more see: MacCarthaigh, M. (2012) ‘Debate: Shrinking the Quango State – An International View. Public Money and Management. Volume 32(6): 397-399; Van Thiel, S. (2010) Debate: From Trendsetter to Laggard? Quango Reform in the UK. Public Money and Management. Volume 32(6): 399-400.

 


[1] Cameron, D. People Power: Reforming Quangos, 6 July 2009.

[2] Ibid.