Why Wales needs a quango clear-out

Bonfire

Andrew Potts

In a speech earlier this year Welsh Conservative Senedd leader Paul Davies alluded to the need for a Dominic Cummings-style shakeup in Cardiff Bay.

From what I’ve seen of post-lockdown driving skills I think Dom is already here, with many motorists seemingly trying out their own Barnard Castle eye test.

For those less familiar with the self-styled polymath and modern-day Machiavelli, may I recommend Channel 4’s excellent docudrama “Brexit: The Uncivil War”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

If nothing else it will help you sleep better knowing that the country is being run by the nice chap who plays Sherlock on the telly.

But let’s get serious for a moment. Whilst the metaphysical Dom-inising of Welsh public life might at first seem anathema, Wales is nevertheless reaching a point where interest in the workings of its institutions has seldom been higher. Whether your vision for Wales is total independence, an improved form of devolution or simply maintaining the status quo, how Wales is run is beginning to matter more to us.

And it’s clear that a shakeup is overdue. Next year’s election in May, even if it results in a change of government, will only go so far beyond achieving that goal because many public services in Wales are controlled by quangos – public bodies which are funded by but sit outside government.

Often viewed as a mechanism for removing responsibility from elected politicians and accountability to taxpayers, thereby portraying an air of independence (quasi-autonomous being the operative term), they are – however – typically anything but independent.

Quangos are sewn into the fabric of public life and whether you like, loathe or simply don’t understand – or care about – what they do, such is their importance that any government wanting to effect change will need to ensure that these bodies do not have their own agendas which are diametrically opposed to what the government is attempting to achieve or perpetuate perceived or real inertia.

 

Diversity

It is inevitable that when a single party has been in power for so long – Labour have been in government in Wales for over 20 years – that appointees – ‘quangocrats’ – will normally reflect the views of those appointing them.

The intentions for setting up quangos were no doubt honourable but many have ill-defined aims or a morphed modus vivendi, to the point that it is difficult to measure their success. And since it is public funding that pays for their staff and provides their budgets we should be at least entitled to know what each agency is meant to do, what it is actually achieving, and whether it can pass a value-for-money test.

Much has been made about embracing diversity in politics, culture and the many other areas of daily life. So let us seek to improve diversity in the composition of those quangos that escape any cull. Various institutions and instruments of government should be more inclusive, and the UK Government’s Public Appointments Diversity Action Plan already advocates this. But diversity should not be restricted to purely meaning identity, whether that’s gender, race, sexuality or social class.

What is also needed is a diversity of thought and opinion. We should not undervalue the variety of perspectives but promote it. Elected politicians and the quangocrats they appoint should better represent a nation’s interests, not self-interest. Perhaps I’m being naïve but politics shouldn’t be about Left and Right, but about right and wrong.

If politics divides us, government should unite us. We need more freethinking and raise the level of debate if we are to improve the future of Wales – however we personally envisage that future.

Beef up

As Ray Bradbury wrote, “if you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.” In a modern society it is better to be open and honest about one’s thoughts than suppress them and do as people expect; to receive criticism to refine those thoughts; and to better understand our goals and ambitions as a nation.

So what can be done to improve the workings and accountability of quangos, and the quality and independence of the advice they proffer? Establishing appointees’ political affiliation would be a start, and would provide a means of measuring diversity of opinion and advice. Not declaring might offer a cloaked sense of neutrality even when an individual’s political outlook is anything but.

Their remits, budgets and staff salaries should be reviewed annually by the relevant Senedd committee, with outcomes assessed against clear measures.

In short, the result of a wide-ranging review might mean the number of quangos is slimmed down, but their diversity of thought and opinion to properly meet the challenges Wales faces should be beefed up.

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