Finally recognising the value of quangos? The Coalition Government and a move beyond the ‘Bonfire of the Quangos’

The current Coalition government made a strong effort early in its existence to reduce the number of public bodies – or ‘quangos’ – in operation. Critics alleged that this was for ideological reasons and may prove to be counter-productive. Kate Dommett discusses the current government’s record, arguing that whilst on the surface there appears to be evidence of major change, a closer analysis reveals that whilst the government have reduced the number of public bodies, they have got rid of relatively few functions and have instead engaged in what the author terms ‘bureau-shuffling’.

The focus of British politics is notoriously cyclical. As general elections approach certain issues rise up the political agenda and are used by politicians of all colours to demonstrate their reforming credentials. One of these ideas is the ‘bonfire of the quangos’, a phrase used by politicians to criticise their opponents’ waste, bureaucracy and incompetence and demonstrate their own determination to create a more streamlined, efficient and ultimately better state. The term quango captures a range of different bodies that exist at arm’s-length from the state which, amongst other things, deliver public services, offer tribunal functions, or advise government. They are routinely criticised by politicians who, once in office, are rather quieter about their desire to reform. Bonfires and mass quango culls are, it seems, rather less popular once politicians require ways of delivering the policies they promised in opposition; creating room for quango bonfires to rise once again up the agenda at election time.

With political parties beginning to set out their ideas for the 2015 general election it is almost inevitable that quango reform will again rise up the agenda. Yet, over the last four years it appears that the Coalition Government have been rather more successful than their predecessors in pursuing quango reform. In assessing their progress my co-author and I took the opportunity in our recent article in Policy & Politics article to explore how the quango state has changed under the Coalition Government and what strategies have been deployed in the arena.

In exploring these ideas we adopted a framework outlined by Christopher Hood in an article published in Policy & Politics in the 1980. His article ‘The Politics of Quangocide’ explored the strategies used by governments to pursue quango reform, developing a framework he used to assess the attempts of the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to end the ‘croak of the quango’.

Hood’s original article argued that governments had three main strategies for reforming quangos. They could, first, try to change the nature of existing quangos by appointing people to those bodies who had favourable political perspectives to the governments own. Second, they could pursue institutional reforms which either make cosmetic, major or politically motivated reductions in the number of quangos. Finally, Hood argued governments could exert greater control over quangos actions, or move quango functions to other non-state bodies so they were no longer directly under the state’s remit. These strategies, summarised by Hood as ‘personnel changes’, ‘surgery’ and ‘medicine’ were used to map the nature of change pursued during the 1980s and led Hood to argue that the government’s reforms did not amount to ‘quangocide’ but rather to ‘a mixture of cuts in spending, personnel changes, small-scale selective surgery and a degree of rather weak medicine’.

In our article we revisited Hood’s framework and in applying his ideas found that the Coalition Government have conducted some quite extensive reforms. Whilst their capacity to use personnel changes has diminished due to political reforms, in terms of surgery a clear reduction in the number of bodies has been made. However, we argue that whilst on the surface there appears to be evidence of major change, a closer analysis reveals that whilst the government have reduced the number of public bodies, they have got rid of relatively few functions and have instead engaged in ‘bureau-shuffling’. As such the size of the state has actually been reduced very little, it has rather been re-ordered. Where there has been more change is in relation to Hood’s ‘medicine’ as there is evidence of significant increases in internal control, as well as an interest in cutting functions loose by giving them to charities and mutuals. Whilst the Coalition therefore remains reliant on quangos they do appear to have affected significant change.

In the context of the issue-attention cycle of British politics this is interesting as with a tendency to talk of quango culls around elections it will be interesting to see whether parties call for a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ or adopt what appears to be the more sophisticated to reform adopted by the Coalition. If the latter comes to prevail then it could have interesting consequences for how we view the state – developing a more sophisticated narrative around quangos that recognises the crucial role that arm’s-length bodies play in delivering the business of government.

Note:  This post originally appeared on the Policy and Policy journal blog and is reposted with the permission of the author. It is based on this journal article. It represents the views of the authors and not those of Democratic Audit UK and not the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.

6XWH6EXK_400x400Dr Kate Dommett is Lecturer in the Public Understanding of Politics and Deputy Director of the newly created Sir Bernard Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield. Kate’s research interests focus upon political parties, political ideology, governance, democratic innovation and political renewal.

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