The quango bites back

April 20, 2009 1:34 PM

Last year's SATs fiasco has been discussed at some length on this page before, both in terms of why it arose, as well identifying those who should take responsibility.

In fact the answer to the second question is really the answer to the first, and it applies much more broadly to the problems of modern government than just this one issue. For when no one is really responsible for anything, everything quickly goes wrong - as it has done repeatedly at the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), and did at the QCA over SATs.

Service delivery disasters - such as with SATs or this years scandalous handling of the 'Building Schools for the Future' programme - come about because Government (or more accurately Ministers) have developed a system in which they may avoid political responsibility but maintain managerial control, by out-sourcing tasks to large 'independent' quangos.

Over the past 25 years Governments' have spun a web of 'arms length bodies', agencies and independent authorities, which now carry out most of the vital (and expensive) functions of government. No doubt bodies were occasionally set up with good intentions (to improve efficiency or quality) but too often they exist primarily as a firewall for political responsibility. And as suggested above, the spread of this form of government has elicited a concurrent rise in service delivery disaster, failing the citizen and over-burdening the taxpayer. With critical decisions now taken by several different people in several different bodies, confusion reigns. Investigations into service failures (such the SATs problems) reveal this again and again. But the system subverts the idea of 'responsibility'; with no one really in charge no one can be really held responsible, particularly ministers. At most the extremely well paid head of a quango will fall (or be pushed) onto their sword, no doubt with the promise of more fantastically paid public sector work in the future if they take their handsome compensation package, shut up and disappear for a few years.

But now and then a quango will bite back. The Sunday Times reported yesterday that Sir Ken Boston - chief executive of the quango notionally in charge of examinations (the QCA) during the SATs problems last year, but who has since resigned - is to break the silence he has maintained since his departure. In a session with the Parliamentary Committee for Children, Schools and Families, Boston plans to explode the idea - maintained by Ed Balls and other minister in DCSF - that they had no knowledge that things were going so wrong with the SATs until the last minute. (Although that admission alone should warrant their resignations). Boston will tell the Committee that ministers were fully briefed on the problems, and that in fact ministers and top civil servants had been forewarned that a disaster was possible for years.

Ed Balls assiduously distanced himself from the mess at the time, dumping the blame squarely with the QCA, and ultimately Sir Ken Boston; (note a very similar pattern last month with the head of the Learning and Skills Council). As is becoming clear from the news about Mr Balls associations with Mr McBride, Mr Balls has no intention of taking responsibility for his mistakes and will no doubt go out of his way to discredit Sir Ken Boston. But Sir Ken (who to his credit resigned as soon as the full extent of the problems become clear) is clearly unhappy with fact that the system has once again shielded those ultimately responsible - Mr Balls and other Government ministers- from the criticism they deserve. For once at least, it seems a quango boss is not happy to carry the can for his recent political masters, and the public will hopefully get a first hand account of how 'government-by-quango' really works when he makes his case before the Committee.

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