Quangos - don't you just hate them? They get everywhere. They're like Japanese knotweed, sprouting up everywhere and resistant to all attempts at eradication. Or like predatory beetles introduced to reduce some pest but which quickly turn into a worse pest themselves. In the Telegraph today part-time mayor Boris Johnson was sounding off on the iniquities of health & safety. Much of the H&S business is in the hands of quangos (such as the HSE), obviously, but I was more struck by the similarity between the spread of H&S culture and the spread of quangos. Boris writes:

People often ask me why there are so many traffic lights, and why they seem to spend such an unconscionable time on red. The answer is that there has indeed been a huge expansion of traffic lights in the past 10 years, and each one generally represents the culmination of some campaign.

Typically, there will have been an accident, and local campaigners will get together with families of the victims to demand a solution. In these circumstances, it is very difficult for local politicians to resist. On the contrary, the overwhelming temptation will be to "do something". And though a plausible case can be made for each intervention, the cumulative effect can be counterproductive.

Setting up a quango is often a way of "doing something" - or being seen to do something. But just like Boris's traffic lights, quangos have to co-exist with all the other quangos, some doing more-or-less the same thing but in a slightly different way, some doing contradictory things, some monitoring the work of other quangos, all eating up money. They all need staff, an office, a logo, furniture, stationary, an advertising budget, consultants, external assessors (qui custodiunt ipsos custodes). And they're much easier to establish than to get rid of.

David Cameron was delivering a major speech today - hosted by the think-tank Reform - on how he intended to do away with the worst excesses of quango-land. I don't think he'll succeed. Like the heads of the Lernian Hydra, every time you kill off a quango two or more grow in its place. Indeed, Cameron had a wonderful example of just this phenomenon:

In 2001, the government transferred the responsibility for training to a new quango - the Learning and Skills Council along with a five and a half billion pound budget, at that time more than an entire government department, the then DTI. The LSC became mired in such controversy that seven years and four attempts at a reorganisation later, the government announced its abolition, intending to transfer responsibility for education and training for 16-18 year olds back to where it came from in the first place: local authorities.

But instead of actually abolishing the LSC, there are in fact now eight new quangos with a part to play in directing training, the AACS, JACQA, NAS, NES, OFQUAL, QCDA, SFA and YPLA.

Meanwhile, the number of young people actually in training has gone down. And the number of young people without a job or training place has gone up. What a joke.

Of the arguments against quangos, Cameron concentrated on the democratic deficit that they often entail.

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.

And, indeed, some of the contempt attaching to politicians comes from the knowledge that their job is increasingly decorative. Soon, there will be a quango to regulate politicians: IPSA - as in the old legal maxim res ipsa loquitur, it speaks for itself. But if the Tories are to make serious reductions to the £35 billion of public money that Reform thinks is being spent annually on quangos they'll have to do more than work out whether certain tasks should be performed by politicians, civil servants or notionally independent quango people. They'll have to cut off the money. Quangos - like government departments - will dutifully spend every penny they're given; and then they'll hire a PR firm to explain why they need even more. But even framing the question in terms of quangos rather misses the point. Quangos are set up to do things. Some quangos are set up to do things that previously were being done by government - and abolishing those might do something to increase accountability but would neither reduce the burden of bureaucracy or save much money. Others, though, are doing things that previously were not done at all - or, just as often, regulating things that previously got along just fine without the interference of the state. The question should not be "do we need this quango?", but rather, "does this thing really need doing in the first place?"

Reform suggests that 790 bodies can be defined as quangos - and a pretty mixed lot they are too. The Taxpayers' Alliance thinks that there are many more. But there are obvious problems of definition. Reform thinks that the British Museum is a quango; but it obviously isn't, it's a publicly-funded institution. You might as well argue that all state schools are quangos. For me, the defining characteristics of a quango are that it carries out regulatory functions or otherwise makes decisions, is funded by the public purse but is not under direct political control. On this definition, the largest, most expensive and most powerful quango of all isn't even mentioned. That's the European Commission.

Promising to cut quangos is an easy enough political gambit - even for Labour that created so many in the first place. But to achieve real change of the kind David Cameron is promising will need more than tackling institutional inertia. Reform's Andrew Haldenby argues that quangos "live in a kind of twilight zone" outside democratic responsibility, where they are "laws unto themselves". This, he thinks, is why many of them are demonstrably inefficient. It might also be said that quangos provide great opportunities for patronage. (Is the House of Lords, in its current incarnation, much more than a glorfied quango itself, its "job" being to regulate the legislative process?) But it goes deeper than that. Quangos are closely bound up with what John Keane calls "monitory democracy", as set out in his new door-stopper The Life and Death of Democracy. Keane writes:

"A vital clue in responding to these questions and understanding the changes that are under way is this fact: the years since 1945 have seen the invention of about a hundred different types of power-monitoring devices that never before existed within the world of democracy. These watchdog and guide-dog and barking-dog inventions are changing both the political geography and the political dynamics of many democracies, which no longer bear much resemblance to textbook models of representative democracy, which supposed that citizens' needs are best championed through elected parliamentary representatives chosen by political parties. From the perspective of this book, the emerging historical form of 'monitory' democracy is a 'post-Westminster' form of democracy in which power-monitoring and power-controlling devices have begun to extend sideways and downwards through the whole political order. They penetrate the corridors of government and occupy the nooks and crannies of civil society, and in so doing they greatly complicate, and sometimes wrong-foot, the lives of politicians, parties, legislatures and governments. These extra-parliamentary power-monitoring institutions include - to mention at random just a few - public integrity commissions, judicial activism, local courts, workplace tribunals, consensus conferences, parliaments for minorities, public interest litigation, citizens' juries, citizens' assemblies, independent public inquiries, think-tanks, experts' reports, participatory budgeting, vigils, 'blogging' and other novel forms of media scrutiny."

If Keane is right, then the quangocracy occupies a central position in the new democratic (or post-democratic) system. On the one hand, they are part - the most powerful and important part - of the monitory architecture. They differ from less formal monitoring bodies in having legal powers, but in other ways share in the general diffusion of power - which is also a diffusion of accountability. They may be a convenient device for politicians to avoid blame, but they make much conventional politics redundant. But they also need to be monitored, in the same way that politicians are increasingly being monitored. They're not going to go away - so perhaps the best we can hope for is that they be subjected to the minute, uncompromising scrutiny which is now applied to elected politicians. We can all play our part in that.


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