Last Tango for Quangos: PHE's performance highlights need to clean up quango state

By John O'Connell, chief executive

How well have we managed the coronavirus crisis? It’s too early to say in any great detail, though mistakes will have been made in a fast-moving, complex environment. But the performance of Public Health England (PHE) has rightly come under the microscope - its ‘command and control’ management of testing has clearly failed and its priorities over the last few years have been the wrong ones. PHE has been asleep at the wheel.

Unfortunately, we shouldn’t be surprised. The mistakes made by PHE are symptomatic of broader failure within the structure of government. Unaccountable quangos that hide behind their supposed expertise continue to let down taxpayers and frustrate public servants working within the system. There’s plenty of work to be done in the recovery phase of this crisis, but one of the main tasks should be to clean up the state.

Quangos offer a number of benefits to the government of the day. Expert advice, for instance, is essential for informed decision making. What’s more, certain government functions are arguably better off done independently - one might not want a politically motivated justice minister have their own people carry out prison inspections, for instance. 

There is, of course, a blindingly obvious flip-side. Notionally independent experts are not always that independent, and may have their own political crusades to pursue. Or they may be - even subconsciously - more or less critical than they ought to be, depending on which party is in charge. But overall, the idea of having distinct organisations dedicated to specific issues, and staffed by professionals in that field, makes intuitive sense. So why have they suffered such a massive loss of public confidence over recent years? Few parts of government are as unpopular as the bureaucracy of the quangocracy. 

There are five (and probably more) broad problems with quangos, the first of which is accountability. They are notionally accountable to Parliament, whose scrutiny of a department includes the work of its quangos. In practice, this task is difficult. Funding agreements stretch over multiple years and mission creep is rife. Their notional independence can also be handy for a minister keen to shift some responsibility and deflect some criticism when things go wrong, though parliamentary question times can only ever summon the politician to the despatch box to explain themselves - never the quangocrat.

The second is the growth and cost of these bodies. Bureaucracy often begets more bureaucracy - in both the private and public sectors, to be fair - and the growth in spending through quangos arguably reflects this. New competencies are acquired and civil society groups with similar interests to a quango can become attached to them, making them very hard to rein back in or abolish. They are useful for addressing the baying mobs who cry “something must be done” - setting up a quango is seen as a proxy for commitment. But they are difficult to unpick when the job is done, as their roots extend far deeper than intended when the quango was planted.

Third is taxpayer-funded lobbying.  Once established a quango has a powerful platform from which to lobby for more money and engage in campaigns against spending restraint. Senior staff are able to gain high profile coverage as experts in their field, while supported by other lobby groups in receipt of taxpayers’ money. As evidence suggests, groups advocating a higher spending position feature in the media six times as frequently as those advocating spending restraint and have 37 times more staff. They are better resourced and have much better access to media.

Fourth is the politicisation of public appointments. It’s an age-old problem that the roles occupied in the public sphere skew heavily towards establishment figures - colloquially characterised as ‘soft left’, or ‘Blairite’. In 2018-2019 there were 1,844 public appointments and reappointments to quangos and NHS bodies in England and Wales. 8.6 per cent of all appointees and reappointees made in 2018-2019 declared significant political activity. Of these, 47.4 per cent were Labour party supporters, 31.6 per cent declared an affiliation to the Conservatives, 10.5 per cent to the Liberal Democrats and 10.5 per cent supported other parties. There is a heavy skew towards London for establishment appointments, too. The south of England (including the South West, South East and London) was the principal residence for over 40 per cent of appointees last year. This perception of bias is perpetuated by a media understandably keen to air the views of objective experts - but those same experts have a seemingly increasing tendency to use that platform to push a political viewpoint. 

The fifth and final problem is duplication of function. With so many quangos in operation, this is inevitable. This causes more problems with accountability, of course, while wasting a fortune in taxpayers’ money. This is a problem at the local level, as well as national. The Independent Safeguarding Authority was set up in the wake of the horrific Soham murders, when an angry public demanded action from the government. However, the Criminal Records Bureau was already in operation. While there were some differences, the coalition government recognised the many areas of crossover and merged them in 2012, forming the Disclosure and Barring Service. Today, bodies like the Gangmasters’ and Labour Abuse Authority, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate and HMRC Minimum Wage (the arm of the tax authority that enforces compliance with minimum wage rules) are ripe for merging and, in the case of the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, abolition. 

So the task is profound - and it’s unsurprising the current government does have an agenda to reform the state. But this is not a new imperative. Like most evergreen issues in Westminster, there’s a Yes Minister episode addressing it. And we can look to the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ of nearly a decade ago, too, as the last real attempt to address it.

The coalition government formed in 2010 had a major fiscal repair job on its hands. Previous governments had badly overspent from about 2001 onwards, long before Gordon Brown propped up the economy with eye-watering sums of taxpayers’ money after the global financial crisis. As the narrative took hold that spending restraint was needed, quangos were seen as easy pickings for savings. In the period before the 2010 general election, big beasts across the political spectrum had them in their crosshairs.

Vince Cable told the Guardian in October 2009 that “quangos should not be exempt from the financial reality facing the rest of society.” That was a few months after Liam Byrne - then Chief Secretary to the Treasury - had written to all government departments "demanding an urgent review of all quangos to assess which can be abolished, merged with other bodies or taken back directly into their ministries.” 

It wasn’t just about cost savings. In a speech for Reform in the summer of 2009, David Cameron said: 

The growth of the quango state is, I believe, one of the main reasons people feel that nothing ever changes, nothing will ever get done, and that the state just passes the buck and sends them from pillar to post instead of sorting out problems." 

There was some action when the coalition came in. Becta, a procurer of IT for schools, was abolished. But there were fudges too. The UK Film Council was scrapped to the predictable howls of the glitterati but many of the functions were wrapped into the British Film Institute. Less a bonfire and more a soggy barbecue on a wet weekend.

Now, the expectations for reform are even greater, given that the quangocracy has expertly evaded real reform. PHE’s approach to the crisis has exposed the painful and uncomfortable contrast between the doctors and nurses working every hour to save lives and the public health officials focusing on the wrong priorities over the last few years.

The truth is that government in the UK is now so large that it is impossible for anyone to manage effectively. So by cleaning up the state, the government should aim to streamline the quango state and drastically improve the bang for taxpayers’ buck.

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