Understanding quangos is important but not the ultimate goal

The UK’s system of public bodies is inconsistent, overlapping, confused, cluttered and ultimately lacks accountability. Taxpayers need to know what is going on, but it is often a monumental task for even the most dedicated researcher to know who reports to whom – that’s the conclusion of a new report published today.

Where there is scrutiny, it is often not by the paymasters – taxpayers. Only 44 per cent of public body board meetings had their minutes made available to the public, and only 19 per cent held open board meetings. Annual reports should be jargon-free and easily accessible – but aren’t. There’s no good reason for not doing so. Without simple measures such as these, how can taxpayers trust our public officials to spend our money wisely?

The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) report highlights areas where public bodies themselves are unsure of who is really in charge. Following the flooding in Somerset earlier this year, it became clear that neither the Environment Agency nor DEFRA considered themselves responsible for dredging the rivers, a process  which would have alleviated the flooding. Where the responsibilities of government departments and public bodies begin and end needs to be clear.  How can taxpayers receive value for money when the quangos themselves don’t know if they are doing their job?

It’s still difficult to tell exactly how many public bodies exist (a point we’ve made before). That there are 283 fewer quangos (since 2010) is an achievement, but this has largely been done on an individual basis, not through structural reform. Fewer public bodies will make it easier to understand the vagaries of those that remain. We were promised a bonfire of the quangos, but there’s plenty more deadwood for the flames.

Simplifying the system is no silver bullet for reigning in quango spending, but it would be an effective start. A “taxonomy” of all public bodies (which the PAC report advocates) would bring the clarity needed for rationalisation and true reform. It is worrying that just understanding the system would be cause for celebration (never mind meaningful reductions in spending), but it seems that is the sad situation we have reached.

The structure of the various public bodies remains obfuscated and until it is clear who is responsible for what, taxpayers won’t know whether they are getting value for money.

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