Leading Article: Bringing democracy to the quangocracy

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The Independent Online
THERE ARE, according to the Government, 1,389 quangos. Democratic Audit, conducted by Charter 88, puts the figure far higher. It estimates that 5,521 quangos are disposing of pounds 46bn annually. What is beyond dispute is that several thousand unrepresentative 'quasi-autonomous' boards - involved in vocational training and enterprise, in health and housing - are running a substantial and growing part of the public sector.

Members of Parliament who attempt to ask how well particular quangos are fulfilling their statutory obligations find it difficult to pose questions that satisfy parliamentary procedure and elicit useful ministerial responses. According to a new study from Demos, the independent think-tank, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, two negative results stem from this democratic deficit. The first is that quangos view accountability in terms of their obligations to government, rather than to those they are supposed to serve.

The second is that inconsistencies have emerged. Some board members are appointed by central government, other boards are free to co-opt. It is almost unknown for non-executive directorships to be advertised. Some non-executive directors are paid for their services. Some are not.

It would be unrealistic to hark back to some mythic golden age when local authorities or Whitehall controlled the services now provided by quangos. It is because of the shortcomings of government and its inability to handle efficiently increasingly specialised services, that Westminster hit upon the idea of employing quangos.

There is, however, now an urgent case to reform many of these new bodies. One priority is to ensure that the list of the Great and the Good, from which public appointments are made, is computerised, easily accessible to the public, and thereby contestable. Appointments should also be advertised and open for nomination or application. A more radical idea would be to explore the possibility that quangos should have shareholders or stakeholders who could participate in the definition of local objectives.

Quangos have become an indispensable part of the governance of this country. The task is to find ways of rendering them responsive without impairing efficiency or making them creatures of over- politicised local activists.