Proposals by the British coalition government to abolish a quarter of the list of eight hundred public bodies have garnered considerable attention. The full list of public bodies and their proposed destiny can by found here. In some instances functions are being transferred into government departments and in other cases privatized. Curiously the casualty list includes some rather effective value for money regulators, notably the Audit Commission. Their local government audit functions are to be transferred to private audit firms. The Australian state of Victoria made a similar move some years ago, turning the Auditor-General into a purchasing authority in the 1990s. The policy was soon reversed as both political and capacity concerns about audit in Victoria became apparent.
The coalition government is retaining public bodies chiefly on grounds that they perform technical functions, that impartiality is required or that transparency in factual determinations is required (as with central statistical functions). There is a valuable discussion by Ian Magee of the Institute for Government here. Magee notes that value for money was not properly considered in the proposed institutional reforms. Even if the principles are correct it is not clear they are applied correctly when the Human Fertlization Embryology Authority is on the list for abolition – it has had both an important technical role and removed significant controversial decisions from the partial realm of politics over a number of years. In this instance it is said the functions are to be transferred to other regulators and this is part of broader theme in the proposals of rationalization of regulatory bodies. In Ireland the Cowen government has already commenced a programme of abolition of state agencies leading to the first significant reductions in numbers of agencies, following on from the report of An Bord Snip Nua. Data on this trend will be discussed at next month’s launch of the Irish State Administration Database, produced by a team working under the leadership of Dr Niamh Hardiman in the UCD Geary Institute.