Although you would hardly know it from Kevin McKenna’s account, Alex Salmond was neither the first nor the only political leader to promise a reduction in the number of quangos. If memory serves, the phrase “bonfire of the quangos” was a product of Tony Blair’s spin machine. When politicians are looking for plausible ways to fund their electoral promises, proposing to abolish a few National Public Bodies, as they are officially called, is a fairly easy way to conjure up a few hundred million.
That so few succeed in their culling of the quangos should give us pause for thought. Knee-jerk reactions are unlikely to prove illuminating. As with everything else, we should ask the pertinent questions – being sure to challenge our own assumptions while we are about it. Mr McKenna rather falls down in this regard; too readily slipping into a mindset which unthinkingly equates quangos with wasteful expenditure.
Maybe, just maybe, the reason it is so difficult to get rid of quangos is that they perform a useful function. It could just be that they do work which needs to be done. Work which would have to be assigned elsewhere, at no trivial cost, were the quango to be abolished.
Perhaps we actually need these National Public Bodies. We would be wise to at least keep our minds open to such a proposition.
Kevin McKenna’s suggestion that NHS Education for Scotland (NES) can’t possibly be of any use because many of us may not even have heard of it is hardly persuasive. Unless you are directly concerned with education and training in the healthcare sector then there is no reason you should be aware of it. This doesn’t mean it is secretive. The Scottish Government provides an online directory of National Public Bodies complete with contact details and links to individual websites for those who want more information. The directory lists 34 such bodies. That you may not have heard of half of them tells us nothing about the utility or effectiveness of the body – unless general public awareness of its existence happens to be part of its function. It rarely is.
It is also worth bearing in mind that these quangos represent a form of devolution. Indeed, some of them are actually called National Devolved Public Bodies.I’d risk a small wager on there being considerable overlap between those who condemn quangos and those who demand more decentralisation of government.
All of which is only to offer a tentative defence of National Public Bodies. Or, at least, to suggest that unthinking calls for their abolition should be treated with the same scant regard as any other ill-considered demand. Where would you start? Children’s Hearings Scotland? Cairngorms National Park Authority? National Library of Scotland?
This is not to deny that there may be issues with the way people are appointed to these bodies and/or the level of remuneration that they receive. But if there are such issues then it seems to me that axing bodies which serve a useful function is, to say the least, a very clumsy way of dealing with the matter.
Populist “grumpy old man” railing against well-established targets of public disapproval is one thing. Offering practical suggestions to effect improvement is quite another.