New Research: Members of the Board: Holding quangos to account

Semi-autonomous public bodies (the UK’s ubiquitous ‘quangos’) are now responsible for a significant proportion of the Government’s work. Major public services – such as health, education and criminal justice– are dominated by them, while sectors such as art, sport and agriculture have become dependent on the financial support which they dispense.

But who oversees their work? Operating at arms length from departments and elected ministers, direct political scrutiny of quangos is limited. In holding quangos to account, taxpayers depend predominately upon the oversight afforded by non-executive boards and quango Chairs.

In a concept borrowed from the corporate sector, most quangos are steered (at least notionally) by a board of non-executive members (i.e. not part of the executive management team) appointed to represent the interests of shareholders (in this case taxpayers and ‘stakeholders’).

Meeting typically twice a month, the exact responsibilities of quango boards varies tremendously, but their primary functions are: to provide direction and leadership; to hold senior staff to account; and to represent the work and views of the body to the public that pays for them.2 Board Chairs often play a role in the executive management of quangos, working between 1 and 3 days a week, chairing both main and supplementary committees. They provide advice to senior management and are often the public face of the organisation.

But who are non-executive board members? Perhaps more importantly, what type of people become quango Chairs? What motivates these members of the public to sit on a board, and do they have the taxpayers’ interests at heart, or the quango's?

For details, download the research note here (PDF).

Key findings of this research note are:

  • 1,620 public appointments (and reappointments) to non-advisory quangos and NHS bodies in England and Wales were made in 2008-09.
  • Non-executive board appointments in 2008-09 covered approximately 9 per cent of the 18,500 (plus) public sector (appointed) positions.
  • 10.2 per cent of all appointments (and reappointments) in 2008-09 declared a political activity. 5.5 per cent reported to be active Labour Party supporters, 2.1 per cent Conservative and 1 per cent Liberal Democrat.
  • The political activity of public appointments appears to correspond with the party in power; in 1996-97 5.9 per cent of all board appointees declared political activity on behalf of the Conservative party, compared to 3.3 for Labour. However over the past 13 years public appointments have been dominated by Labour supporters.
  • No data was available for the political activity of Chairs after 2005-06. But in 2005-06 17 per cent of Chair appointments declared political activity, significantly above the level for general public appointments; 13.4 per cent declared an affiliation with Labour, compared to 1.6 for the Conservatives.

For details, download the research note here (PDF).

Ben Farrugia, Deputy Research Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said:

“Quangos now control a wide range of public activities, involving billions of taxpayers’ money. But they remain unaccountable and distant from the public that pays. The Chairs and non-executive directors of quangos should work to protect taxpayers' interests, but there are serious concerns about their suitability to do that job. Our study suggests that instead of serving taxpayers' interests, some non-executive members and Chairs may put their quango’s interests first. Many senior figures are career quangocrats, moving from one quango to another. With a pressing need to save money by cutting quangos back, these individuals could be a serious barrier to any Government hoping to save money. Serious action needs to be taken to increase democratic control over quangos, so that they are genuinely accountable to ordinary people.”

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