Is it of any consequence that Non Departmental Bodies (Quangos) lack democratic accountability?
In order to understand the accountability of Quangos we must first understand what they truly are and then from their definition we can progress to examine whether or not they can be and should be held accountable by the people whose money they spend, the taxpayer themselves.
The world of the Quango is inhabited by organisations referred to by political scientists as many things including to name a few, fringe bodies, non- departmental organisation.. semi-autonomous authorities and quangos. (British politics 3rd edition coxall & robins pg 333) As can be seen by the above definition and also the contents of the chapter referring to quangos in most part, in any book that can be referred to, the definitions for quangos are varied, different and in most part very confusing.
The word quango was coined to describe ‘quasi autonomous non-governmental organisations’. Quangos spend taxpayers’ money, are ultimately responsible to central government and are unelected. They can be local or national bodies can be advisory bodies or be responsible for delivering services. They operate at arms length from government and therefore are more independent of central government than, for example, civil servants. However, there is widespread disagreement about exactly which organisations can be classed as quangos. According to the government the number of quangos has gone down since 1979. But according to others the number has risen quite dramatically (See table 1.1). Whatever the case, quangos have become one of the main issues in the debate about democracy. there is an executive quango for every 10,000 people in the U.K (Hall and Weir 1996)
(British politics 3rd edition coxall ; robins)
The Democratic Audits 1996 Quango count
No of Quangos
Non departmental/executive quangos
Local executive quangos
Career Service Companies
City Technology Colleges
Further education Corporate bodies
Grant maintained Schools
Higher education Corporations
Local Enterprise Companies
Training and Enterprise Councils
The total Quango Count
The existence of quangos is undeniable, but of course it is those who sit on the bodies themselves that make up the complexion of the certain quango and therefore contribute to decision making powers that ultimately effect people. But who are these people and how do they acquire these positions of power?
Democratic Audit claims that 65,419 people currently sit on quangos. They are mostly appointed by the relevant Minister or by someone else he or she has appointed. The procedure and criteria for selecting and appointing people to quangos are secret. There is a list of candidates, held by the Public Appointments Unit, which is also secret. Once appointed, the government does release names and brief details of career, but it does not as a matter of course publish other information and does not, for example, say what if any the appointees’ political affiliations are.
There is some concern that a disproportionate number of quango appointees have had links with the Conservative party. For example Baroness Denton, when a DTI minister in charge of making many quango appointments, said she had ‘never knowingly appointed a Labour supporter.’ A recent study discovered that 62 of the 185 NHS Trust chairmen, including three former Tory MPs, had clear links with the Conservative party. However, the Nolan Committee has recommended that Ministers should not be completely free to make these decisions: a commissioner should be appointed to check that ‘suitable’ and experienced people are appointed and that jobs are not handed out for political purposes.
Already we can see the concern of lack of accountability building up slowly towards the quango system. What is a Quango? Many argue they lack definition and also why so much secrecy surrounds the appointment and role of people sitting on the respective quangos? But many other concerns are also entailed.
Concerns about local quangos have been expressed in two areas. Firstly there has been the change caused to the balance between central and local government, given that the quangos are in general ultimately accountable to central government. Doubts have been raised about the adequacy of central accountability: the doctrine of ministerial responsibility in a modern department stretches credibility. In addition the line of accountability from a local quango to the minister can be long and indirect. Furthermore there is a powerful argument for making bodies which determine local policy accountable at that level although recognising that this must be done within an overall national framework.
The second concern relates to the degree to which local quangos are in fact accountable. Issues of propriety and appointment have been considered by the Nolan Committee, but even if appropriate people are appointed and their behaviour seen to be virtuous, they still need to be accountable for policy decisions and for economic, efficient and effective implementation. Judging effectiveness implies agreement on what aim was being sought.
This critical eye should be cast over quangos. There is considerable variation from one type of body to another as to requirements for external audit, the publication of reports and other forms of transparency. Many quangos have recognised the need for some form of local accountability, such as expressed in the TEC National Council’s Framework for local accountability. Yet they are a long way from the requirements for openness imposed on local authorities. The feeling from inside quangos seems to be that there is a huge number of accountability requirements upwards to central government, leading to a frustration expressed to the Nolan Committee during their inquiry into local spending bodies as “Back me or sack me, but don’t keep tripping me up”. The volume of monitoring required by central government is no guide to its usefulness. Calls for more accountability may well be greeted with groans as a result, but accountability has many purposes, only a few of which are met by the central government counting mania.
Accountability, both in the sense of giving account and being held to account, needs to cover the development of policy as well as its implementation. (The two are of course often intertwined.) As well as defining why the body is there and what should be done, policy decisions are involved in the allocation of resources, both how much to give to the body in the first place and how it is distributed thereafter. There is a strong case for the latter process at least to be subject to local accountability as should the process for defining local needs and the development of a strategy for meeting them. In terms of implementation the local community needs to have some means of being satisfied that the body’s processes are economic, efficient and effective, but also that they are carried out in line with certain core values, such as with regard to working conditions. Yet at the same time it is important that accountability should not be stifling: delegation involves trusting people to get on and do.
Accountability occurs in many different ways: through giving account and accepting sanction and the need to change; through involving people in the decision-making, directly or through consumer choice; and to a certain degree through transparency. Account can be given directly, to representatives, or to independent bodies such as District Audit. The rules of accountability are not self-evident. It is often necessary to negotiate a common framework, an agreement on how to judge the account. Appropriate policy and effectiveness can only be determined if there is agreement on why the body exists, why the task is being carried out. Accountability may be to different groups for different things. multiple accountability.
The Government’s approach to increasing local accountability has been to emphasise consumer responsiveness. Increased responsiveness has improved services, but there are issues which are wider than the interests of an individual. Granting parental choice of school helps individuals at least those who are in a position to choose but it does not contribute to ensuring a balanced provision of schooling over an area. Allocation of resources between competing interests is another example. Individual interest does not always coincide with the public interest.
Yet, essential as elections are in giving legitimacy to representatives to govern, they are also limited in the degree to which they reflect people’s needs and wishes. A voter turning up every four years to mark a ballot sheet does not convey very much information about the situation. There is no sign that most people want deep involvement in the way things are run, yet we distrust politicians and quangocrats. Direct elections for a multiplicity of bodies would be unlikely to meet with much enthusiasm as public support for political means seems to be waning on all parts of the political spectrum. So can anything be done in order for the Quangos to become less like a conspiracy theory to many? Many things have been suggested in order for this to happen. Democratic Audit has placed forward the idea that in the event that certain quangos become powerful that the seats that reside should become those that can be democratically elected by the voters so that the power reflects the will of the people rather than the will and personal feelings of those who are undemocratically in places of power. This according to the audit would instil confidence within the public regarding the decision making powers. Government has also promised reform. Amongst a host of ideas suggested in order to restore confidence the idea of advertising places on certain committees and quangos is one which has been generally accepted, yet on others there is still a lot of scepticism surrounding the intentions of certain reform. It has been many years since Lord Nolan produced his report aimed at eliminating sleaze within politics and opening up the shadowy world of quangos to public scrutiny. There have been major changes as a result. A commissioner of public appointments oversees and monitors the staffing of quangos; a code of conduct exists, to which many of these non-elected bodies have to subscribe; and the selection process is fairer and more open. Sadly, however, these developments seem to have made little impact on public perceptions. A Mori poll, commissioned by the office of the commissioner for public appointments (OCPA), found that most people still thought appointments were politically influenced and bureaucratic. Perhaps just as damning was the widespread belief that selection was based largely on personal connections. Being a “member of the right golf club” – rather than being able to demonstrate a proven track record – was the seen to be the most important factor.
In closing, of course there is consequence for the lack of accountability for this leads to distrust within the very people for whom (in principle) these bodies were set up for in the first place. And we see the consequences of the lack of accountability are undermining the entire concept of the system that really is suitable and also not. Would voters come out more than they are already asked and vote for the representatives that they think should sit on quangos? The answer quite simply would be no. But then the public also require accountability when things go wrong or are brought into the light regarding certain issues. But it seems it is only at times like these that there is any real call for accountability.
Word count: 1909