Quangocide

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.

Author: Colin Scott

Colin Scott is Principal, UCD College of Social Sciences and Law and Professor of EU Regulation and Governance at UCD. He is a Co-Editor of Legal Studies (Wiley-Blackwell).

36 thoughts on “Quangocide”

  1. It is almost 4 years since then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern commissioned the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to review the public service and recommend changes.

    The OECD reported in April 2008 and criticised the proliferation of “arm’s length bodies,” — quangos and concluded the situation amounted to an “organisational zoo.”

    Bertie Ahern agreed at the launch of the OECD report that the estimated 800 agencies were “too many agencies by half.” 

    Everything in Ireland at policy level happens…so…so..slowly.

    It’s the slow-motion system of governance that we have come to expect.

    “In process,” as a civil servant might say.

    So we expect the same people in the permanent government who were in charge during the bubble to now implement “transformational change”?

    It of course will not happen at a required level because the political leadership won’t provide the necessary support to counter the entrenched vested interests.

    Overseas mangers (not outside consultants) who have a direct record of implementing change, should be drafted in to take charge.

  2. @Colin Scott

    I wish Niamh the best of luck in finding them all …. ‘spose a bit of ‘relational distance’ wouldn’t go astray!

    Skittles are being prepared …

  3. “Their local government audit functions are to be transferred to private audit firms.”

    Odd as auditors haven’t covered themselves with glory these past few years, and the EU wants to increase competition in the area.

  4. Prof. John Kay wrote in his FT column this week on good and bad quangos:

    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.

  5. Can Ireland get by with a smaller more focused 3rd level? If Minister Batt believes that €3 million ‘extra’ to the County Enterprise Boards will ‘deliver’ 450 jobs, the billions put into 3rd level R&D through Science Foundation Ireland and Enterprise Ireland (oxymoron?) should have delivered a few hundred thousand by now – excluding the thousand extra in 3rd level R&D – following the Minister’s reasoning.

    During the bubble period the only jobs the CEBs created were in the CEBs.

  6. @Michael Hennigan
    “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.”
    I fail to see the need for the quango structure at all. Why have a board that employs or contracts the technical people to do the work? Why not have a civil servant at a particular department act as ’employer’ and run the functions of the quango?

    If there is a conflict of interest (i.e. it is a function that is critical of government or an advocacy function), then perhaps the Ombudsman’s office could run the quango.

    It appears to me that the generalist nature of the civil service is exactly suited to running these organisations and that there is little to be gained in either efficiency or effectiveness by corporatising them.

  7. thanks for that last link. It led me to a lot of the other things happening in the innovation dublin festival next month. Some of them sound cool.

    However, for a festival of innovation, they seem to have neglected the basics and produce a proper timetable -leaving it needlessly difficult to find out what’s on.

    Still, worth it.

  8. I suspect Irish industry would get along just fine without the NSAI and just adopt the EU/BS standards, it would reduce costs and prices…
    Taxi drivers would be able to find their way around our cities without a taxi regulator. (imagine there wasnt a regulator before de-regulation, how Irish is that)
    I suspect that energy policy and costs would be in better health without the CER…we certainly were a braver and more farsighted nation when we built Ardnacrusha and not a regulator in sight.

    And if I’m wrong on one or two, who cares? they can always be restarted, probably with better people employed at lower wages.

    Shock and awe baby…Kill them all let God sort them out.

  9. @MH
    “Think of how sucessful civil servant types would have been in managing business oriented staff chasing up investment opportunities.”
    Yeah, maybe. But that would be down to a failure of management. You don’t hire people to do a job and then try and tell them how to do it. You hire them to do a job and assist them if they need it…

    Indeed, the IDA had a rocky start, no? It has been around since 1949 and in its first thirty years did what?

    The current CEO is an IDA lifer. The previous a professional bureaucrat ( http://www.finfacts.com/irelandbusinessnews/publish/article_1010331.shtml 😉 ).

    I believe using the IDA is arguing my point for me. While having Mr. O’Mahony as chairman no doubt raises the profile of the IDA, it is very much run as part of the DETE. It has recently performed well in that role. There is clearly no barrier to running a tight organisation from within a government department.

    Avoiding seniority-based promotion and appointment must surely be a more critical move forward than running organisations at arms length. In particular, when the arms length involves the boards being chosen by the current minister whoever that might be.

    For all the faults of the civil service (and I hold no particular candle for them), they must surely be better than Bertie’s mates…

  10. The IDA is State-sanction for the hosting of lavish corporate entertainment.

    It’s dinners for fatcats, golf outings, tickets for major events.

    In short, it’s a load of marketing BS, and the country would be leaner and competitive without all that brown-nosing.

    It does bring short-term gains, but once the taste of those dinners is gone, the executives realise they’re operating in an uncompetitive country (paying taxes which are funding the next batch of fatcats on the IDA hitlist), and start looking for an out. Better to focus on making ourselves healthier and leaner without resorting to all those cosmetics.

  11. @hoganmahew. I have a more radical suggestion. Why not get rid of all of the generalist civil servants and employ properly trained specialists such as those currently working in Quangos to carry out the civil service policy making functions? Why were all the quangos established in the first place? For both practical and political reasons. The political reasons have been well rehearsed in the media (patronage, to satisfy a particular interest group etc etc) what is less well understood is that there was also an important practical reason in many (not all cases) – the capacity to carry out specialist policy work and even basic policy work such as cost benefit analysis simply doesn’t exist in the Irish civil service as currently constituted. Get rid of the Quangos and cutting the civil service consultancy budgets to zero will cause real problems in many policy areas. An obvious solution would be to avail of more policy advice from the academic world. I for one am happy to volunteer my services for free for the sake of the nation. Also I can’t guarantee that the civil servants will necessarily want to hear what I have to say.

  12. The IDA is one of the most effective sales organisations in the country.

    It’s very unfortunate for the economy that so many Irish people think selling is beneath them.

  13. @Michelle
    That is a great suggestion. I heartily endorse it. I was trying to offer something that might happen though! 😀

    My beef is mostly with the corporate structure of the quangos. There’s a totally unnecessary layer of management between their sponsoring department and the people who actually work in them. I don’t see the purpose that is served by this. Beyond having some 6,500 patronage places available to the Taoiseach of the day…

  14. @Rory O’Farrell

    You have not obviously looked at any Local Government Accounts. Some are issued/dated up to 2 years in arrears. The Private Sector must file accounts in the Companies Office 9 months after the year end but not so for the Public Service.

    @ Con

    Do you mean the IDA/EI are good at selling themselves? The Private Sector accept that they are hopeless from a business point of view. Permanent Pensionable Posts should be the new name for this organisation.

  15. @ hoganmahew /Ger

    I’m not easily impressed and I have criticised the current leadership of the State enterprise agencies for their craven cheerleading of political spin.

    Eaten bread is soon forgotten and the typical economist, accountant or civil servant wouldn’t strike me as the best to sell to skeptical businessmen.

    In the early 1960s, it helped to have an Irish-American in the White House but in the 1960s it wasn’t an easy sell to promote interest in what was a poverty-stricken backwater.

  16. The issue of patronage cuts to the heart of a great many of the country’s political problems. Ministers’ powers of patronage cause all sorts of dubious characters to accrete to them. Even potential ministers can start to build a retinue…

    The local party machines are often singled out, but it’s patronage that perpetuates our two main parties’ lack of any coherent values. They’re politics clubs and nothing more. A politician without ideology is a politician with no vision for what politics is actually for.

  17. @TRP
    I said nothing about EI. I said IDA is a great sales organisation. Its role is to sell Ireland to inward investors, and it is world-reknowned for being very good at it.

  18. @MH
    “The decision to set up the IDA was an inspired one.

    Think of how sucessful civil servant types would have been in managing business oriented staff chasing up investment opportunities.”

    and

    “I’m not easily impressed and I have criticised the current leadership of the State enterprise agencies for their craven cheerleading of political spin.”

    I’m not sure I follow you? 😕

  19. Thank you Michael H

    I quote from the executive summary of the OECD Report on Irish Public Service (2008) per your excellent website
    http://www.finfacts.ie/irishfinancenews/article_101348.shtml

    ‘Over the last decade, the Taoiseach, as head of government, has championed the reform agenda, including the initiation of this Review, and this has been a crucial driver for change within the Public Service. Given the scope of changes outlined in this Review, Ireland will continue to require such strong central leadership if new ways of working are to be successfully implemented’

    In light of the subsequent debacle, your judgement about the existing organisational culture seems soundly based. It’s not nice but it’s a fact. With apologies to the minority of genuine achievers, it looks like our leading public servants are in many cases incapable even of conceiving of the necessary change. Let alone carrying it out.

    Quangos are a means to perform technical functions, provide impartiality, or deliver transparency in factual determinations. As noted by several commentators, they are also vehicles for patronage, and consolation prizes for the ’also rans’ and ‘retired’ of the political race.

    Quangos are alos venues for the articulation of the stakeholder interests which gather around the flow of state finances. Composition of the boards tends to reflect the balance between party politicians, staff interests, professional associations and suppliers of goods and services.

    Waste of public funds is not just tolerable, but actually necessary (repeat necessary) to maximise private profit. Riding the Boards is a career in itself, again with apologies to the dedicated and genuine.

    The essence of corrupt politics is that few defend the general interest. As the saying goes, however, we are where we are.

    @ hogan
    ‘For all the faults of the civil service (and I hold no particular candle for them), they must surely be better than Bertie’s mates…’

    Of course, but they are still rather crippled by their Victorian culture. If they had real efficacy, they would never have let vested interests rip up the state finances. Too easily impressed.

  20. There are around 1,008 quango’s in the country ranging from 2 to 4 people in a broom cupboard upwards to the common gardiner variety of 10 to 20 member boards.

    We pay public servants, they sub out the functionality of their own departments, at the same time hollowing out their own departments. The politically connected, many of whom are grossly inept, then hire PR companies to tell the public what a wonderful job they are doing on our behalf, which is a blatant lie. We need to take a leaf out of Cameron’s war manual.

  21. I wonder how much the Irish taxpayer, through the IDA, is paying to incessantly play on U.S. television the idiotic “Innovation Ireland” commercial on CNBC. This ridiculous commercial is played a million times every morning. It is silly, boring, and totally annoying. It has been going on for almost 2 years. Why are the Irish taxpayers borrowing money at almost 7.0% to fund this irritating and idiotic commercial? Is this the best the IDA can do to promote “Innovation Ireland?”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFSit oZitMwas

  22. @ hoganmahew

    Sorry that you’re confused about my position on the IDA.

    The time horizon is 60 years and with a remit to work like exporters in chasing up commercial opportunities overseas, the original policymakers have been vindicated.

    Former Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave spoke this week on the setting up of the IDA in 1949 as part of the Department of Industry and Commerce, with a separate board of directors and on the 1955 decision to ignore seniority at the Dept of Finance and appoint the 39-year old Ken Whitaker as its head.

    http://www.rte.ie/news/2010/1014/cosgravel.html

    @ paul quigley

    Thanks!

    @ All

    The worst example of the disease of quangoitis is Ireland’s health service.

    The Department of Health retained 526 of its 651 staff, despite the HSE recruiting 1,800 extra management and administrative staff in the four years to 2008 on top of the feather-bedding (not to be confused with bed-blocking or trolley indexes) carry-over from the regional health authorities.

    Over 500 ‘workers’ retained with the biggest challenge possibly being planning the overseas trips of Mary Harney and her husband.

    It’s of course easy to be wise after the event, and before Harney got the Health job in 2004, I did ask if she should be sacked?

    Should Bertie Ahern Sack Minister Mary Harney from the Irish Cabinet?

    http://www.finfacts.ie/comment/maryharneycabinetcomment19.htm

    2004: Harney has avoided decisions on every critical issue of deregulation and competition under the control of the Irish Government, by requesting the Competition Authority to produce a report. Nevertheless, she is far from shy about extolling the virtues of deregulation such as in aviation and telecommunications, which has been mandated by the European Union. 

  23. Michelle NorrisAdrian K

    Yes, it is all about patronage. Those who help the TD get elected, get appointed.

    This applies to so called professional firms like SKC etc.Lucrative contracts are awarded and pick me ups or kick backs proliferate, all in the shadows as that is where corruption grows best. Most of the upper ramks of the Civil Service should simply be culled. Force the minister to …. ad minister? Vacancies to be filled after the 1939 Emergency is repealled!

  24. I work in a quango. I was hired – as were my colleagues – for my specialist skills and knowledge. We don’t have permanent or pensionable jobs. We work extremely hard to develop a particular sector which produces employment and a significant income stream, with transparency and cost-benefit as guiding factors. Our performance is monitored and evaluated constantly against our objectives. The sort of far-reaching strategic understanding necessary to do this, is a very different way of thinking to the political and bureaucratic style of civil service. Regardless of whether politicians choose to use them as rewards, Quangos exist because in particular areas expertise is needed…it doesn’t matter to me whether my boss is a civil servant in a govt department or a corporate-style CEO – as long as they have the vision and intelligence to do their job well. And therein lies the rub…
    It’s very easy to have black-and-white views on quangos, but it’s not very intelligent….as has happened in the UK, making cuts in order to be seen to be making cuts sometimes results in even higher costs to the state. A big-picture cost-benefit analysis is needed, albeit one that can encompass the complexities, intangibles and double-bottom lines that are also part of the equation.

  25. @MH
    Thanks for that. Gotcha now. So my original comment:
    “Avoiding seniority-based promotion and appointment must surely be a more critical move forward than running organisations at arms length. In particular, when the arms length involves the boards being chosen by the current minister whoever that might be. ”
    holds true?

  26. @AnnMarie

    Without disputing anything you say, it is possible to imagine that politicians find quangos useful purely in order to extend their powers of patronage. Thus their numbers multiply and accountability vanishes.

    Imagine a country where the politicians have no such largesse at their disposal. Nobody might ever have any reason to ingratiate themselves with them.

    The first quango created in this paradise is of unimpeachable integrity, as are the next few after that. Gradually however, ministers understand the opportunities they offer, cronies start to accumulate, and influence networks of the sort we’ve seen in this country begin to arise.

    When talented people begin to see political friends as the route to advancement instead of the products of their own talent and energy, a society is in grave trouble.

    Clear ground rules for determining whether a quango route is the appropriate bureaucratic mechanism or not would be welcome. If the civil service is not felt to be fit for purpose, the prospect of improving it should be considered alongside the idea of creating separate institutions. Above all, the Dail needs reinvigouration by radical extension of its powers of democratic oversight.

  27. @ AnnMarie

    I agree that cuts should be done on a rational basis but unfortunately the senior people of course operate on a self-interest basis and generally make decisions from a list of figures.

    The most reprehensible action against a public agency in recent years was in respect of one that was acting too well in accordance with its public remit but when it took a case against the Department of Justice, the minister cut its budget by 43%.

    Niall Crowley did a rare thing in Irish public life by resigning on principle as CEO of the Equality Authority.

    In his resignation letter, he said: “The only credible explanation I can see for what has been done to the Equality Authority appears to be that the casework strategy implemented by it, particularly in relation to allegations of discrimination in the public sector, has been experienced as a threat by senior civil servants and/or Government. It would further appear that the independent voice of the Equality Authority has had to be silenced for becoming an awkward witness to the inequality and discrimination in our society. The Equality Authority is being victimised for doing well what it was established to do.”

    The majority governs; the majority can be pig ignorant and smug as it was in the past when the concept of a republic was a paper sham.

    Dermot Ahern and his ministerial colleagues with several hundred constituency helpers, political advisers, spin masters and drivers on the public payroll, will of course take the self-interested course.

  28. @ Robert Browne
    “There are around 1,008 quango’s in the country ranging from 2 to 4 people in a broom cupboard upwards to the common gardiner variety of 10 to 20 member boards.”

    I would be interested to know where this figure comes from. The Irish State Administration Database, to be launched next month, has a total of 374 central state agencies for 2010 (up from 44 in 1922 and down from a peak of 391 in 2007) and this includes a variety of organisations which would not be described as quangos (such as ministerial government departments (15), statutory tribunals (13), constitutional and related offices (13) (such as the Comptroller & Auditor General) and state owned commercial enterprises (number depends on classification).

  29. @hoganmatthew – Seniority-based promotion is not a feature of my employment, and I agree it is a serious issue inhibiting quality, creativity and initiative-taking. I work alongside a number of civil servants and find their work ethic and attitudes completely different to public sector – but I imagine that entrepreneurial risk-takers neither apply to the civil service nor have the characteristics that are looked for or rewarded in new employees there.

    And (@Adrian Kelleher) – that is the core of the issue, not political appointees (though I agree that the abilities of Ministers to appoint at Board level is mis-used as a reward, another example of the cute-hoorism that still remains in Irish politics). Civil service is fundamentally flawed and an anachronism in the current environment; job security in an age when no-one else possesses it, clearly does not stimulate productivity or quality.

    But reform of the civil service is a huge and difficult job; far easier to make quangos the bete noir…

  30. Quangos in Ireland arose from the fact that cronyism and nepotism had to be curbed in the Civil Service. So we have these semi demi state instutions set up to ensure that cronyism and nepotism continued unabated. When you abolish quangos you are in fact cutting the heart out of FF and FG as a politicial parties. Since the dysfunctional political system is deeply embedded in the culture, bred in the bone so to speak it cannot be weeded out without and extremely serious crisis. 13% unemployment is not enough if it goes over 20% then the problems might be addressed.

  31. I think quangos also have to do with outsourcing responsibility. When politicians don’t want to accept political responsibility for policy decisions, they like being able to blame someone else, usually a consultant or a quango. A classic is the NRA – they get blamed for picking motorway routes instead of the Minister for Transport. (not saying the NRA should be abolished but that its very helpful for the Minster to wash his hands of all decisions be they tolls/PPPs/routes/necessity of motorway in first place) by refusing to answer Dail questions because its the remit of the NRA). I mean, what’s a politician for only to decide on policy?

    Similarly the use of a quango enables secrecy of decisions that taxpayers should know about it. Again the NRA and the recent discussion of the compensation deal for the shortfall in toll revenue being hampered because the responsibility for it has been taken away/given away by the Minister. The biggest/only advantage of the HSe is that the Minister no longer has to answer questions on health matter because its the responsibility of the HSE.

    I’d dismantle any quango that recommends policy and only have quangos that implement existing policy – usually where technical expertise is required.

    Also NO quango should have a PR firm working for them – either they are doing a good job or not and a press officer should be employed in-house to handle queries. Neither should every single quango get to employ web designers and separate advertising firms. All that work could easily be handled by a central web/graphic design team employed directly the government.

    There are loads of ways to cut costs without necessarily affecting productivity.

  32. @ Colin Scott

    My figure came from a talk at the SSISI fiscal workshop 26th of November 2009 speakers were Colm McCarthy Dr. Niamh Hardiman UCD and Blair Horan of CPSU and Danny McCoy of IBEC.

    Niamh’s paper was the one that quoted the 1000 plus quango’s and she was congratulated by Colm McCarthy for finding out just how many there were in the state. NIamh took a forensic approach! I am sure you can track down the paper she delivered! Colm McCarthy even said that some of his own work was hard to access as it was now covered by the official secretes act. That’s why bond spreads are at 7.8% today!

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