Thursday, 30 July 2009

When is a quango not a quango?

An interesting call today for the resurrection of the WDA, or something very like it, by Professor Brian Morgan.

My initial instinct, when the then Labour government proposed to abolish the WDA (and a few other quangos as well), was to support what they were doing. There was a feeling that Wales had for too long been run, in practice, not by elected politicians, but by unelected political placemen (and they were mostly men).

Wales had become something of a quango state, where large parts of our national life were actually being run by people appointed through a mysterious and secret process from a list of the great and the good, many of whom just happened to be Tories despite Wales being a largely Labour-supporting nation. It suited the Tories to be able to appoint their people to the various boards and panels without the tiresome business of having to get elected to anything, and it suited the Labour Party, up to a point, since it meant that many of their people would stay in place even if they lost power in London.

So, in principle, sacking the boards and panels and making the various agencies answerable directly to elected politicians seemed like a good idea. Actually, I still think it's a good idea – not only did the old system mean that a number of bodies and agencies were not answerable to the electorate in any meaningful way, it also gave politicians a degree of what Nixon called 'credible deniability' for the decisions taken by those bodies and agencies. In the health service, in particular, that always seemed to be a little too convenient at times.

As far as that last point is concerned, it did seem to me that there was a sense in which the government was being somewhat selective in deciding which quangos to put onto the bonfire though. Those where they wished to take the credit for success seemed to be a higher priority than those for which someone else could be blamed for failure!

What I did not – and still do not – understand is why abolishing the quango necessarily meant turning all the employees into civil servants, let alone merging them into a department of the Assembly Government. What I wanted abolished was not particularly the agencies themselves, but their unaccountability, and most especially, the system of appointing the great and the good to run them.

Giving the Minister responsibility for appointing the Managing Director, and making the appointee accountable directly to the Minister surely achieves the desired result in terms of removing the unelected and unaccountable boards. But it can still leave the organisation free, to an extent at least, to retain a different culture and style from that of the civil service – and it's the loss of that culture and style, rather than the loss of the organisation per se, which seems to be at the root of the problem identified by Prof. Morgan.

Perhaps there's some rule somewhere which insists that such a solution is impossible. If so, we should be challenging and changing that rule rather than allowing ourselves to be constrained by it.


Preseli said...

As I've said for some time now, we've been hoodwinked into exchanging the "quango state" for an arrangement where the quango has actually become an integral element within the system of government i.e. quangos were never really abolished, they were simply subsumed into the government machine and as a result are now perhaps more faceless and far less accountable.

The key to success in Wales at the moment seems to be getting yourself a email address! And there are a lot of those flying around!

Cibwr said...

The old Wales Tourist Board was somewhat unique, starting out as a voluntary body that became a quango with the passing of the Development of Tourism Act, it became a model of a specialist agency. It had two distinct strands, a body that promoted tourism in Wales and a body that grant aided the tourism industry. They amassed quite an expertise within house and benefited from the two strands of its work running together and informing each section of its work. People there had a real identity and passion for the job. I am not sure that has survived the translation into the civil service. Certainly the profile of Visit Wales is no where near as high as that of the old Wales Tourist Board. Perhaps it is time to recognise the specialist job that it did and give it a rebirth?