Talk of a bonfire of the quangos set me thinking. Cameron wants to return all the policy functions of quangos to government, to ensure accountability to parliament. The exceptions are quangos whose role involves technical advice (eg the Monetary Policy Committee and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence), impartial advice (eg research councils), and transparency and independence (eg the Office of National Statistics).
But why the change? I can see no reason why there can’t be tighter regulation of existing quangos outside government, with ministers held accountable for the quangos for which their departments have responsibility. It looks to me as if Cameron is playing games again, playing to a public mood without regard for the best interests of government. Just how much disruption will switching the functions of quangos back to Whitehall create? And are government departments always the best place for developing policy?
Recent consultation on the Climate Change Bill asked for a comment on the proposal for an independent analytical organisation, arguing that ‘an independent body will improve the institutional framework for managing carbon in the economy’. One response was simply a plea for ‘not another quango’…..
And yet …climate change policy is one of many which needs to be informed by recommendations that are independent of government, not tied to previous policies or funding decisions. It needs a long-term view. Policy determined within government departments could be at the mercy of ministerial whim, itself swayed by electoral considerations and whatever pressure groups can get the strongest media campaign behind them.
Quangos as I’d define them need to focus on the long term, and advise on policy areas which it’s hard for the public to have an informed opinion about. There needs to be accountability in terms of cost and competence of course, but to disparage quangos per se is simply foolish, and opens up the possibility of evidence-based decisions being open up to media influence and short-termism.
Cameron in power will find the same situation as Thatcher, Blair and Brown did: he’ll realise early on the benefits of involving third parties in policy development and recommendation. And he’s find himself tied by the foolish pronouncements he thought he had to make to get him into power.