Modern governments need specialist agencies of various kinds to run or supervise
public enterprises, to regulate significant areas of public life (e.g., broadcasting,
safety at work, etc) to ensure the safety of medicines, pesticides, etc, to promote
racial harmony, to run or supervise public services, to perform public functions
(e.g., child support), and so on.
The point of such bodies is to take charge of the multitude of more specialist
duties and tasks to which modern governments cannot devote sufficient oversight
or which for varying reasons should be dealt with at arm’s length from
government itself. But they may also be used by government to avoid assuming
direct responsibility for divisive and potentially damaging issues.
In the UK such bodies are popularly known as “quangos”. Quangos got a bad
name in the 1980s as a result of abuse of patronage by the then government and
the absence of systematic mechanisms to secure their accountability.
But quangos are often essential or valuable bodies. There is a great variety of
quangos in the UK. Some act as “watchdogs” in the public interest, like the
Health and Safety Executive or Food Safety Agency; some seek to promote and
safeguard minority rights, like the Equal Opportunities Commission or
Commission for Racial Equality; some perform a public service and require
independence of government, like the BBC and Electoral Commission; some
provide or fund public services, like the Housing Corporation, universities, NHS
hospital trusts or learning and skills councils.
A host of other bodies, for example, advise government on the safety of
medicines or the quality of air, or run museums, direct research programmes,
recommend wines for government functions, etc.
Until the mid-1990s, ministers and senior civil servants were solely responsible
for appointing members to quangos and other public bodies. As recommended by
the Nolan Committee on standards in public life, a Commissioner for Public
Appointments regulates appointments to quangos. The Commissioner’s remit is to
ensure that appointments are made on the basis of “merit” ; that they are free
from undue political or other influence; and that there is an effective independent
element” in the appointments process. A special commission now oversees the
whole appointments processes within the NHS.
However, ministers retain the final say over who is appointed. The Prime Minister
also has wide-ranging powers of patronage within the quango state. Nor does the
Commissioner’s writ run to every quango or public body. Her Office (OCPA)
estimates that about half of central government appointments are made under its
supervision or according to “Nolan principles”. In July 2003, the Select Committee
on Public Administration found that only one in six quangos run by central
government were subject to OCPA regulation. Very significantly, appointments to
most local quangos are not regulated at all, other than those to NHS bodies, and
these tend to be filled by word of mouth within business, political and other
The existence and variety of quangos – at national, regional and local levels
-raises a number of democratic issues:-
1. Are the government and devolved administrations open about the whole
range of such bodies and the people who are appointed to them?
2. Are these bodies of appointed people made properly accountable to
government and the public?
3. Are these bodies of appointed people open to the public and to public and
scrutiny of their policies, actions and finances?
4. Are these bodies subject to official public audit?
5. Do ministers and civil servants maintain effective oversight of the activities
of the quangos attached to their departments?
6. Does Parliament and its select committees oversee quangos effectively?
7. Do local authorities have any say in the policies and actions of quangos in
their areas, or any oversight of the appointments processes?
8. Are the functions and services for which quangos are responsible properly
the preserve of appointed rather than elected boards?
9. Are the people who are appointed to quangos broadly representative of the
public as a whole?
10. Are appointments to quangos free from improper influences or bias,
political or otherwise?
These questions were first raised by Democratic Audit in a path-breaking report,
EGO-TRIP: Extra Governmental Organisations and their Accountability in 1994
and were followed up in subsequent reports (see DA Publications). Professor
Stuart Weir has acted as special adviser to the Public Administration Select
Committee on two further reports on quangos – Mapping the Quango State
(House of Commons Paper 367, 2001) and Government by Appointment: Opening
Up the Patronage State (HC 165, July 2003). This briefing draws upon all these
The UK quango state: size and accountability
The Select Committee on Public Administration (PASC) has published the fullest
recent head count of quangos at all levels in the UK. In 2000, the PASC report,
Mapping the Quango State (HC 367, 2000-01) identified 297 executive
non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs, the official term for “quangos”) and 536
advisory NDPBs or quangos in central and devolved government; 5,338 local
quangos of all kinds; and 2,295 local “partnerships”, zone boards, etc, bringing
together local authorities, the police and other public agencies, voluntary bodies
and private enterprises in a new level of local governance.
More up-to-date, but limited, information can be found through the annual
register, Public Bodies, which provides details of all NDPBs, their size, funding and
terms of reference, task forces, funding, the representation of women, ethnic
minorities and people with disabilities, etc. It is possible to track the development
of the quango state and the large number of changes that have occurred in the
recent past through this register.
Public Bodies 2002, the latest register (from the Cabinet Office), lists
834 quangos, comprising of:
192 executive NDPBs;
141 public corporations;
428 advisory NDPBs;
36 tribunal NDPBs;
3 nationalised industries;
23 central NHS bodies.
This is not, as we shall show, a full list.
Evading the net
As will be seen above, most quangos are designated as NDPBs
(“non-departmental public bodies”). Governments adopted the designation NDPB
to replace the popular term, “quango”, on the advice of the Pliatski report in
1979. Government departments sponsor most NDPBs, but the Scottish Executive,
the National Assembly of Wales, the NI Assembly and regulators also run them.
Pliatski’s idea was that the NDPB designation would cover the varied multitude of
public bodies, so that government and the public would know how many there
were. In fact quite a few public bodies escape being classified; and one in six
designated NDPBs also escape regulation by the Commissioner for Public
Appointments (see Quangocrats).
A partial survey in 2002-03 by PASC found:
1. departments sponsor “other bodies” – that is, public bodies that are not
classed as NDPBs. The Committee was unable to discover how many
“other bodies” existed, but a Department of Health census listed 43 bodies
within this single department which were not NDPBs and did not appear in
Public Bodies. The DOH listed six of these bodies as “external bodies” in
its returns to PASC. How many “other” and “external” bodies exist within
Whitehall and devolved administrations is impossible to say.
2. PASC did however identify a few other bodies that have been kept off the
official radar. Two of these are significant bodies with a strong private
British Trade International (under the Foreign Office/DTI), which exists
to promote exports. BTI is neither an NDPB nor an executive agency
(see below); its board is drawn predominantly from big business and
the senior civil service.
Partnerships UK began life as a task force on the Private Finance
Initiative, briefly became an NDPB, and was then privatised as a
merchant bank (with the government taking a 49 per cent share). As a
“private body”, PUK is not reported on in Public Bodies and is probably
outside other forms of public accountability, and yet its activities are
very influential in the public sphere. Its board is made up of senior
Treasury officials and major figures from the City of London.
3. As of 31 March 2002, 41 task forces with nearly 300 members from
outside government existed within central government; 137 ad-hoc
advisory groups with almost 1,200 external members; and 35 policy
review bodies, with some 125 external members. Their membership is not
regulated on the basis that they are merely temporary bodies, but 85 of
them have existed for more than the two-year life recommended by the
Committee on Standards in Public Life, and some of the 85 are apparently
significant bodies. For example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer chairs the
Standing Committee on Euro Preparation, an ad-hoc advisory body set up
in May 1998; a third of its members are from the private sector. This is
one of several bodies described as being “ongoing”. Ongoing bodies should
be classified as NDPBs and made subject to the Commissioner for Public
Appointments and other public scrutiny.
4. Some 128 executive agencies, public bodies “hived off” from government
departments and still regarded as part of their original department, have
advisory boards of officials and external members and/or “Fraser figures”,
senior officials who act as the main source of external advice on the
agency’s performance. Agencies, which don’t have advisory boards, are
encouraged to take on additional non-executive directors. None of these
appointments are subject to the Commissioner or Nolan rules.
The local quango state
As stated above, PASC identified some 5,300 local quangos in the UK as part of
its “mapping exercise”. The Committee also listed some 2,300 local partnerships,
new forms of governance involving local authorities alongside other statutory,
voluntary and private bodies or associations. Academic evidence to the
Committee in 2003 suggested that twice as many such partnerships now existed,
not counting any funded through the EU. The Committee gave one example of
the prevalence of partnerships in a local area. Bristol council deals with 76
Bristol-wide partnerships, forums, strategy groups, etc; 46 neighbourhood and 36
regional partnerships and groups; and ten national and international networks.
These are considerable extra levels of governance which come under minimal
Ever since Democratic Audit exposed the neglect of accountability of the quango
state in 1994, government has been striving to improve the overall level of
accountability, using the Audit’s own criteria. PASC also used the Audit criteria
for detailed surveys of the accountability and openness of quangos at national,
regional and local level in 1997 and 2001. Chapters 8 and 9 of Political Power and
Democratic Control in Britain, the second UK audit, also present accountability &
openness figures for 1993 and 1997 with additional data and analysis.
The PASC report, Mapping the Quango State, publishes detailed tables of
accountability and openness mechanisms for 1997 and 2001:-
1. At national level, the report found a large increase in executive
quangos subject to the Ombudsman between 1997-2001 (up to
76 per cent) and progress on introducing complaints procedures
(74 per cent), but full public audit actually fell (from 81 to 64 per
cent) and public access to these bodies remained low. Overall
executive quangos met only just over half of the accountability
2. Advisory quangos at national level remain opaque bodies. Only
29 per cent even publish annual reports. Only 3 per cent must
consult the public; only 2 per cent must let the public see their
agendas; and only 1 per cent must hold meetings in public. The
only advance is on public access to the registers of members’
interests, but even so only 42 per cent give such access, and it is
not clear whether access is a statutory duty or voluntary
arrangement in many cases.
3. Advisory quangos are closed worlds, but they often deal with
issues of great public interest – such as the safety of medicines,
food, nuclear installations and air quality. Similar bodies in the
USA are open to the public and some even give people a right to
address them. An ICM poll for the Rowntree Reform Trust in
2000 showed that the public did not trust ministers or these
committees to tell the truth.
4. Local NHS bodies are generally accountable and open, but other
local executive quangos at best seek to be informative and are
otherwise closed bodies, especially by comparison with elected
local councils. There are few formal links between quangos at
any level and local councils and councils do not have the powers
nor the resources to keep these bodies or their memberships
under scrutiny. Yet local councils which are supposed to provide
local leadership (see Skelcher, Weir and Wilson, The Advance of
the Quango State, Local Government Information Unit, 2000, for
further information). There is an urgent need for a “joined-up”
review of the role of quangos at local and community level.
Issues of Concern
The quango state continues to raise issues of great concern. We deal with the
limited role that elections play among such bodies and the low representation of
lay people on them in our briefing on appointments.
Here we signal concerns about accountability and openness:
1. While government has reduced the numbers of formal executive and
advisory quangos, usually NDPBs, it is increasingly creating very powerful
new bodies that require stronger measures of accountability to ministers,
Parliament and the public than now apply. Among such bodies, for
example, are Ofcom, the new media regulator; the Financial Services
Agency; and the Legal Services Commission. It is not simply the power
that such bodies possess. Their creation takes out of the immediate
political and public domain major issues of public policy that require
democratic input and scrutiny.
2. The Cabinet Office, which is responsible for the governance of quangos,
has expressed its concern about the low level of ministerial oversight of
3. Advisory quangos that deal with major issues of public safety and the
quality of people’s lives and, indeed, often literally with matters of life and
death, are largely closed and secretive bodies. Vested interests often
dominate their membership, lay and consumer representation on their
boards is low, and their influential advice is apache