England & Wales

Quangos, scorecards and bonfires

On Friday, the LGA published new research compiling scorecards for 11 of the UK’s largest quangos rating them on value for money, accountability and decision making.

We’ll pass over the irony that many people would see the LGA itself as a similar quango and wonder how well it would come out of such an exercise.

Nonetheless, the idea of paring a set of performance management measures down to a simple traffic light report card that lets us compare the performance of various bodies responsible for spending so much public money is an appealing one.

It won’t surprise anyone to find that most of the organisations assessed do not come out very well. Anyone who has dealt with a large quango will be familiar with the inefficiency and opacity the report cards describe. In this sense the report is well attuned to the political zeitgeist and is generated headlines in the familiar name and shame genre.

We know that the Tories plan a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ and George Osborne’s party conference speech was explicit in this regard. But as well as fanning these flames the LGA report also illustrates some of the difficulties of this approach.

Because while all of the quangos examined fall down in certain areas, the report also illustrates that they all also have areas of strength. This too will be a familiar picture to many. Unfortunately the world does not neatly divide into good quangos and bad quangos. Most combine some good work with areas of weakness.
So it’s not so much a question of throwing whole organisations on the bonfire but of making them fit for purpose: eliminating inefficiencies, focusing work, saving money, restructuring, developing staff or moving them on.

Unfortunately as anyone who’s been through an organisational change programme knows, this is all easier said than done, you need really clear strategic decision making and transformational leadership, you need to invest in staff training, or in transferring contracts or making redundancies. All of this takes time, money and above all skill. (There’s a reason why management consultancy is such a profitable business!).
Do quangos have the leadership to transform themselves in this way? If not, where will this leadership come from? Who will make the hard yards of getting right into these organisations and making strategic decisions about what offers value and what does not, what stays and what goes?

The LGA’s report may make a pressing case for reform in our larger quangos but it also illustrates just how tough that reform will be. A bonfire may be a rhetorically satisfying notion, but in a reality a more nuanced approach will be required.