Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Spare us the Quango-bashing

I've posted at the Public Finance blog on David Cameron's plans to cut quangos, where I question the main examples chosen by Cameron.

David Cameron has been vying with the government in the battle to be nastiest to quangos. Embarrassingly for the Conservative leader, Labour has shown that his plans would involve another 17 quangos, including an independent board to run the NHS – removing ministerial accountability from one of the most sensitive public services.

Beneath the rhetoric, there is some sense to the Cameron justification for a quango’s existence, that it should offer technical advice, impartial decisions and transparency. And there are undoubtedly too many quangos, not least in areas such as regional policy and skills.

But, why then did Cameron pick on the curriculum authority and Ofcom as his two shibboleths? TheQualifications, Curriculum and Development Agency, currently the QCA but due to transfer its regulatory arm to Ofqual, will be responsible for the
national curriculum, qualifications and national tests. All these are areas where it is unwise for politicians to take decisions, although, of course, ministers should be consulted on important changes. They all involve technical advice, impartial decisions and transparency. What this implies is a much more hands-on (dare one say it, centralist) role for government under a future Tory administration.

Similarly, it makes sense for communications regulator Ofcom to be at arm’s length from ministers, given the sensitivity of decisions about the BBC. It is simply daft to suggest that such an organisation should not have a small research and policy arm – and it is a lot better at it than most departmental research units.

Of course, ministers should make decisions and be accountable for them. And the lines of accountability for quangos could be better drawn. But the truth is that once Cameron really tries to wield his axe, he’ll find it is a lot harder – and less palatable – than it looks.

Do also read Will Straw's analysis showing how Cameron can't make the promised savings from axing quangos, at Labourlist.

1 comment:

Paulie said...

Conor - I really can't think of a Quango that needs to be abolished MORE than OfCOM. The idea that they are taking sensitive political decisions out of the political sphere (and why is that a good thing?) is simply nonsense.

If you track OfCOM's recent work, they tend to automatically discount any ideas that they think will be politically problematic - they seem to think it's their job to second-guess elected politicians.

Take their dismissal of audio-visual levies for instance. Their report earlier this year on Public Service Broadcasting involved a good deal of opinion research. It showed that - of all the funding options open to the government - levies were the most acceptable way of filling the funding gap. And then, having spent so much energy (money?) on this research - in one short paragraph - they simply dismissed the idea because some sections of 'the industry' were not supportive of the idea.

You and I know what that is a euphemism for, and I don't mind slippery evasion from politicians - it's in their JD. But it's not acceptable from QUANGOs - it actually makes decisions worse than if they were made by poor old compromised ministers.

I really don't think the question is 'will Cameron will create MORE QUANGOs?' - it's why our own government has been so grateful to them for de-toxifying so many big questions.

I'm sad to say that I don't think our government has been as good as it could have been if it had been prepared to forgo the expensive bit of short-term comfort that these organisations have offered.