Editorial: Our governance has yet to enter the 21st century

Too often, ministers feel the need for an outside alibi before they take decisions


Before the last election, David Cameron promised – or threatened, depending where you stand – a radical reduction in the number of public bodies in what became known as the "bonfire of the quangos". In a progress report last month, the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said that the Government had eliminated more than 100 such organisations and was on track to cut the 900 it had inherited to fewer than 700 by 2015.

For proponents of slimmer government, that was the relative good news. Even if the costs in redundancy and other payments are likely to limit the benefit to the Exchequer in the short term, there should be savings in the longer term. And 900 does seem an awful lot of quangos for any government to maintain. As we report today, however, the truth about the Government's zeal for slashing such hybrid public-service outcrops is a bit more complicated. It may be meeting its target for quango-culling, but it is running far ahead of the last, Labour, government in appointments of new policy "tsars".

While Labour created 130 such positions between 2005 and 2010, the Coalition – according to a forthcoming study by King's College London – has already notched up more than 80. They include the well-known, such as Mary Portas (high streets), and the almost anonymous, such as Howard Goodall (singing champion). And while it would be wrong to condemn any government for wanting to recruit fresh faces from the real world and soliciting opinions from beyond the corridors of power, such appointments pose questions beyond the cost to the public purse.

One concerns democracy and how far the "tsars", like the quangos before them, really do bring a fresh perspective to policy. And the answer provided by the King's College study is that – in their profile at least – they represent all too often more of the same. Fewer than one in five is a "tsarina", for instance, and the vast majority are over 50. There is more than a whiff here of nice jobs for (the older) boys. Should the net not be cast much wider?

Whatever the qualifications of those chosen, however, such appointments raise another question – one that goes to the heart of how Britain is governed today. If so many additional individuals and organisations are deemed necessary to policy-making, not just by the last Labour government, but by a Conservative-led Coalition, what are ministers and the country's thousands of civil servants actually for?

Whether it is quangos, or tsars – or, indeed, outside consultants whose role and value Justine Greening is laudably reviewing in her new post as Development Secretary – the extent of the Government's resort to this sort of help offers persuasive evidence either of ministerial timidity or of significant gaps in Civil Service expertise, or both. All too often, it seems, ministers feel the need for an alibi to take decisions for which they already have an electoral mandate. This may be because they fear opposition from vested interests, or because – as many a minister has complained down the years – the Civil Service is institutionally resistant to change. But the effect is the same: sluggishness in implementing policies and a potentially dangerous blurring of the lines of responsibility.

Which is why Mr Maude's move to commission the Institute for Public Policy Research (not a natural friend of the Conservatives) to look at Civil Service models elsewhere is welcome. For if any subject cries out for a fresh eye, it is this. The objective should be a modern system of government, in which the need for hybrid accretions such as "tsars" is eliminated because expert opinion is built in, and comes with due transparency and accountability.

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