Does cutting Quangos improve accountability?
‘In the UK, semi-independent boards have been part of the British political landscape for 200 years…’ (Greve, Flinders & Van Thiel, 1999). The justification for their existence has been to reduce the load on government at the centre (Birrell, 2008).
In the past, there have been ‘few official requirements for quangos to be open about their activities’, and so it is of little surprise that organizations failed to take the initiative of opening up to the general public (Deacon & Monk, 2002). The complex nature of the term and the biased debate on quangos as closed, unaccountable and secretive has led to further confusion and negative attention for the organizations.
Quangos however, can ‘bring policy related activities closer to government’ but at the same time, ‘enable governments to keep areas of policy at arm’s-length from the direct political process’ (Birrell, 2008: 47). And as Pliatzky reminds us, ‘the point of devolving a function to a non-departmental body…is to distance government from the performance of that function’ (Pliatzky, 1992: 558-559).
Quangos also break down the conventional divide of public and private. In this way, they allow a wider and more diverse range of organizations and individuals to be involved in the conveyance of public tasks. It can be argued that whilst this perhaps makes them more democratic, it does not render them more accountable (Greve, Flinders & Van Thiel, 1999: 130).
‘The relationship between a more diverse representation of society in quangos and democratisation is based on seeing quangos as embracing a form of public participation in policy and administration and facilitating a balance of gender and ethnic, religious and other minorities’ (Birrell, 2008: 46).
‘Although quangos are not publicly elected, many fulfill highly significant public roles-delivering key services, regulating institutions, promoting good practice, facilitating institutional and public partnerships, and so on’ (Deacon & Monk, 2002). While it may be that certain benefits gained from the use of quangos compensate for the perceived lack of accountability, many issues of accountability in quangos persist today.
Simply cutting quangos however, does not increase accountability. Quangos are complex and diverse organizations and each merits special consideration.