There are few easier ways in Britain to win the approbation of tabloid newspapers, or the applause of a rightwing political meeting, than an attack on quangos – quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations. The very name is constructed to invite derision.
And yet around the world, central banks, supreme courts and other highly respected bodies serving public functions, are run by people who are not elected. Even if such individuals are appointed through a political process, they are generally chosen for their technical skills rather than their public profiles or party allegiance.
The more detached central banks and courts are from political controversy, the greater the esteem in which they are held. To say the judiciary is politicised is to condemn it; while central bank independence has proved successful enough as an economic tool for us to seek to extend the principle to other policy areas.
The BBC is among Britain’s best-loved institutions, respected around the world precisely because it is a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation. It has brought off the remarkable feat of combining the authority of the British government with independence from it.
The paradox that we love the characteristics of the quango while hating the concept is so striking that I can already envisage the letters explaining that these institutions are not really quangos. But I cannot think of any sensible definition of a quango in which such organisations are not the epitome of quangoness. The achievements of these bodies are the direct result of delegating traditional government functions such as justice and economic policy to non-governmental bodies that are quasi-autonomous.
If the concept of a quango is redefined to include only those that- are useless, then we can all agree that such organisations should be abolished – but they should be abolished because they are useless, not because they are quangos.
Properly functioning quangos are an essential part of the checks and balances of a modern democratic state. They are also a means for handling technical issues in a dispassionate way that looks further ahead than the next electoral cycle. The Food Standards Agency, which has just been abolished, was set up because the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as it then was, had proved incapable of discharging its responsibilities to citizens and consumers in the face of pressure from commercial interest groups.
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence, perhaps the most controversial of all quangos, decides which drugs may or may not be prescribed on the National Health Service. Perhaps these decisions would be better made by politicians, who are subject to pressures from patients and to the ferocious lobbying of large pharmaceutical companies. But I don’t think so.
Of course not every quango serves a useful purpose. The website of the children’s commissioner describes an organisation it is easy to imagine living without. Such a body arises as a result of a well-meaning but vague sense that “something ought to be done”. Far from being able to take a dispassionate non-political view, the children’s commissioner seems to see political campaigning as her purpose.
Dislike of quangos partly reflects dislike of the people who are often found in them. There is a modern class of quangocrats, recognisable by the acronymic language in which they speak and the string of public appointments they have held. Some such individuals lack the personality or stamina to stand for elective office or the desire or drive to engage in productive activity, and they glide effortlessly from committee to committee. Successful quangos, by contrast, are those that give real authority to people with specialist skills: judges, monetary economists, broadcasters, programme makers and medical professionals.
Good quangos have specific technical expertise and their purpose is to take issues out of politics. Bad quangos have no distinctive skills and are designed to put issues into politics. In next week’s spending review it should not be too hard to tell the difference.