Call the press: quangos have functions?!

Quick! Someone call the press! Ian Magee may have spotted something about quangos:

What became clear [is] that the government has found few quango functions that can be abolished outright.

You’re telling me quangos were actually set up for a reason, and aren’t just an elaborate left-wing ruse to waste public sector money, employ the otherwise unemployable, and water down political accountability?

Well, I’ll be damned.

A better way of reorganising quangos

Note: this post was written for a completely different purpose. Given today’s news, and the interest of this blog in quangos, mergers etc. for some while, it seemed pertinent to post it today.

If central government has to engage in top-down reorganisations of its various agencies – including its own departments, quangos and statutory bodies – then it might as well do it properly.

The proposal is simple: that at the centre, sitting within the Cabinet Office, is a flexibly-resourced team with the experience, expertise and track record of what it takes to deliver the successful reorganisation of organisations – be it through merging, acquisition, or decommissioning. When any one of these reorgansiations is required, the central team is called on to advise on and lead the complex reorganisation processes involved and ensure learning from all previous similar exercises is used and applied, and captured this time around for future use.

When the Equality & Human Rights Commission opened in October 2007 it represented the end of a significant transition period in which 3 existing equality commissions (disability, gender, race) were brought together by a transition team drawn from host government departments, the existing organisations themselves and consultants. The cost of this exercise was £39m and the Public Accounts Committee noted that, even then, the EHRC wasn’t ready for business and key business areas still needed work.

Indeed, the process for creating the EHRC was described as “patently flawed”.

At almost exactly the same time, the Care Quality Commission was created as the result of a merger between the Commission for Social Care Inspection, the Healthcare Commission and the Mental Health Act Commission. For this another transition team, drawn from host government departments, the existing organisations themselves and consultants, was brought together.

As far as I know, not one conversation took place between the CQC merger team and the one that had managed the EHRC merger process, despite the obvious benefits in doing so.

The proposal recognises that the process of substantially altering organisations in any of the ways described is hugely complex, but that once you’ve been through it there is a substantial amount of experience you could call upon if you had to do it again.

However, you wouldn’t want to ignore the ‘local’ experience and knowledge that comes from staff within existing bodies. This is effectively the business case for using consultants in such scenarios.

Thus, instead of bringing in often expensive organisational design or merger consultants, the expert team sitting within the Cabinet Office is called upon. This saves time and money, and ensures valuable intelligence on the process is both used and captured for next time.

Over the next parliament, we know that quangos and all sorts of public bodies will merge or have their responsibilities moved to another body (see, for example, here). A team of the type suggested would be a cost-effective way of ensuring the lessons from the creation of the EHRC, the CQC and other such bodies can be applied in every new reorganisation.

Quango merger learning

We’ve been interested here for a while in the topic of quango merging, mainly because at least one of us here was quangoed whilst another was involved in evaluating said quango.

This interest has given rise to the one good idea I think I’ve ever had: a quango merger quango, which would be:

some form of team or body within central government that can advise or lead the process of mergers within the public sector.

There are plenty of plusses for the idea and only a few minuses, one of which, obviously, is my suggested name. It’s only the name, I presume, that could possibly mean the coalition government hasn’t snapped up the idea and given me the credit. I’ll post something on the idea later.

In the meantime, Guardian Public continues its excellent and informed reporting on the public sector with this piece on quango mergers and the experience of the Hearing Aid Council (the HAC).

Having been abolished, the HAC generously wrote a report highlighting 10 key lessons for other public bodies facing merger or abolition. The report is available here, and gives a nice example of exactly the sort of thing my proposed quango merger quango would do.

Next Steps Agencies, quangos and political accountability (#irony alert!)

Francis Maude was on the Today programme this morning, ahead of the coalition government publishing its plans for merging or closing a large number of quangos.

Maude tried to claim that the review of the quangos was in no way informed by the deficit and was instead driven by a need to ensure accountability in the public sector, going further to imply that it was Labour who had overseen the increase in quangos and so reduced accountability.

Let’s ignore the clear sophistry in suggesting a substantial quango review is nothing to do with the deficit – virtually everything the coalition government has done has fallen back on the deficit as its justification.

Instead, let’s focus on Maude’s ignorance of recent history. For it wasn’t, of course, Labour that established in significant numbers arms-length organisations that have apparently watered down political accountability: it was the Conservative government of the 1980s, using the vehicle of Next Steps Agencies.

Next Steps Agencies (NSA) were introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 designed solely to deliver government policy. They were merely operational organisations that were responsible for delivery and not accountable.

The move to NSAs as a means of delivering policy heralded an era of “technical politics”, as opposed to the politics that led to the construction of the welfare state since the end of the Second World War. Such “technical politics” meant that ministers, as part of the executive, were required more to provide direction to policy than actually implement it and required that more responsibility was instilled in managers. This was essentially the realisation of the policy / administration divide. Yet, at the same time, the Questions of Procedure for Ministers maintained that “[m]inisters are accountable to Parliament for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments and agencies”. As such, NSAs were essentially a form of delegation by ministers to managers for tasks that were to be carried out — the delegation being based around a “framework” document, which outlined the nature of that relationship.

At that time, many were concerned about the effect NSAs would have on the accountability of ministers to parliament. I’ve argued – in a long post on the matter – that the introduction of NSAs had a minimal impact on accountability. That’s not to say there weren’t and aren’t problems with accountability per se; just that NSAs have done nothing to make better or worse that situation.

So, when Maude says that arms-length organisations affect accountability, he either (a) has to accept the historical fact that it was a Conservative government that substantially introduced the principle of them; or (b) should note that they actually do the job they’re supposed to do, and have a minimal impact on accountability.

Aside (for political geeks): I’ve noted before that in the great debate between operational responsibility and public accountability, Michael Howard – in the Derek Lewis affair — won, effectively meaning politicians everywhere won. As a great piece of history, here’s the exact moment Howard won, by abrogating any sense of political responsibility for something he obviously had done:

Quango mergers: a simple process?

That’s the question, posed by Guardian Public:

Departmental agencies and non-departmental public bodies look ripe for merging in a bid to save money by the next government. On paper it looks simple but how will it work in practice?

And the answer?

Merging organisations is never as simple as it appears on paper and the process of merging public bodies is no less complex than in the private sector…

[I]n merging, it is important to remember that agencies and NDPBs, were originally created with specific remits. So combining two or more such bodies will require a careful aligning of these differing remits or re-crafting a new set for a new age.

Or, to answer the question more concisely, no.

This problem being the one to which I modestly propose my solution of a quango merger quango, or NDPBMNDPB.

NDPBMNDPB

The more I think about it, the less likely I see quangos surviving the impending cull of public spending in the next spending round (2011-2014). It’s a view shared by virtually everyone, of course, but also Nick Huber in today’s Guardian Public:

Both Labour and the Conservative parties have announced plans to cut the UK’s 750-or-so quangos, which spent £46.5bn in 2008/9. In December, prime minister Gordon Brown announced plans to abolish or merge more than 120 quangos…

A Tory review would decide which quangos should be scrapped and which could be bought back within government departments, in order to make them directly accountable to ministers[.]

If the quango-culling agenda supports one thing, it supports my idea for a new quango: some form of team or body within central government that can advise or lead the process of mergers within the public sector.

Noting that the term ‘quango’ isn’t particularly favoured within government — instead we should use “non-departmental public body” (NDPB) — my good friend and contributor to this site Phil suggested we could call such a body the Non-Departmental Public Body for the Merger of Non-Departmental Public Bodies, or NDPBMNDPB for ‘short’.

I wholeheartedly agree and will be using this acronym from now on.

Quango merger quango

The news came last week that the cost of setting up the Equality & Human Rights Commission was £39m. As well as criticising the cost of the creation of the EHRC from the 3 existing equality commissions (disability, gender and race), the Committee of Public Accounts also said that the organisation itself wasn’t ready for business with key business areas still needing work.

According to the committee, the process for creating the EHRC was ‘patently flawed’.

I worked for the Disability Rights Commission in the 18 months leading up to the merger and at the EHRC itself for around 8 weeks. Indeed, I was there on day, as this post attests. It would thus be quite wrong of me to say whether or not the Committee’s findings are a fair reflection or not, since I contributed a small part to the transition process and know many of the individuals well who were heavily involved.

My experience of the merger, however, led me to an idea at the time that I still think now would be useful: some form of team or body within central government that can advise or lead the process of mergers within the public sector.

The thinking is simple: the process of merging organisations is hugely complex, but once you’ve been through it once, there is a huge amount of experience you could use if you had to do it again. However, you wouldn’t want to negate the ‘local’ experience and knowledge that comes from staff within existing bodies. This is effectively the business case for using consultants in such scenarios.

Thus, instead of bringing in often expensive organisational design or merger consultants, a team could sit within the public sector – possibly, say, within the Cabinet Office – and support such transitions. Such a team could even be formalised to be a quango in itself, advising on the merging etc. of quangos.

To take the time at which the EHRC was created: at that same time, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) was also being created from merging together the Healthcare Commission, the Commision for Social Care Inspection, and the Mental Health Act Commission. I suspect many of the same issues that came up in the forming of the EHRC arose during the CQC merger, and invaluable lessons could have been applied to save both time and money, and ensure the new body was effective from day one.

Over the next spending period, it is inevitable that quangos and all sorts of public bodies will merge or have their responsibilities moved to another body. A quango merger quango (I suggest this name only half tongue-in-cheek) would be a cost-effective way of ensuring the lessons from the creation of the EHRC and other such bodies can be applied in every new such scenario.