Next Steps Agencies, quangos and political accountability (#irony alert!)

Francis Maude was on the Today programme this morning, ahead of the coalition government publishing its plans for merging or closing a large number of quangos.

Maude tried to claim that the review of the quangos was in no way informed by the deficit and was instead driven by a need to ensure accountability in the public sector, going further to imply that it was Labour who had overseen the increase in quangos and so reduced accountability.

Let's ignore the clear sophistry in suggesting a substantial quango review is nothing to do with the deficit - virtually everything the coalition government has done has fallen back on the deficit as its justification.

Instead, let's focus on Maude's ignorance of recent history. For it wasn't, of course, Labour that established in significant numbers arms-length organisations that have apparently watered down political accountability: it was the Conservative government of the 1980s, using the vehicle of Next Steps Agencies.

Next Steps Agencies (NSA) were introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 designed solely to deliver government policy. They were merely operational organisations that were responsible for delivery and not accountable.

The move to NSAs as a means of delivering policy heralded an era of "technical politics", as opposed to the politics that led to the construction of the welfare state since the end of the Second World War. Such "technical politics" meant that ministers, as part of the executive, were required more to provide direction to policy than actually implement it and required that more responsibility was instilled in managers. This was essentially the realisation of the policy / administration divide. Yet, at the same time, the Questions of Procedure for Ministers maintained that "[m]inisters are accountable to Parliament for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments and agencies". As such, NSAs were essentially a form of delegation by ministers to managers for tasks that were to be carried out — the delegation being based around a "framework" document, which outlined the nature of that relationship.

At that time, many were concerned about the effect NSAs would have on the accountability of ministers to parliament. I've argued - in a long post on the matter - that the introduction of NSAs had a minimal impact on accountability. That's not to say there weren't and aren't problems with accountability per se; just that NSAs have done nothing to make better or worse that situation.

So, when Maude says that arms-length organisations affect accountability, he either (a) has to accept the historical fact that it was a Conservative government that substantially introduced the principle of them; or (b) should note that they actually do the job they're supposed to do, and have a minimal impact on accountability.

Aside (for political geeks): I've noted before that in the great debate between operational responsibility and public accountability, Michael Howard - in the Derek Lewis affair — won, effectively meaning politicians everywhere won. As a great piece of history, here's the exact moment Howard won, by abrogating any sense of political responsibility for something he obviously had done:

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