Quit the quango bashing, by Jenny Owen

8 Oct 09
JENNY OWEN | Quangos are in the pre-election line of fire, but some can improve governance – such as the planned college for social work

It’s party conference time. It’s general election time. When better to have a sensible debate about quangos without using the word ‘bonfire’?

It is worth remembering that agencies set up to carry out government policies have been with us a long time. In fact, they have been around since before the word ‘quango’ was coined and will be with us long after the word has dropped out of the headline writers’ lexicon.

The question should not be whether we need quangos but what their functions should be, what areas of our economy they should cover, how they are governed and what their relationship to government should be.

By and large, functions need to be characterised by clarity; their relationship to their sectors by simplicity; and their governance by transparency. They must be used not to reduce governmental responsibility, but to enhance it.

Nor do quangos have to be self-funding, or sound financial investments: government has responsibilities that don’t have to show a profit to justify their existence.

It is by those tests, for example, that we should judge the performance of the recently created Care Quality and Equality & Human Rights commissions. Do they, in their current forms, help the government govern better than other ways in which their same tasks and responsibilities could be achieved?

These aren’t idle questions. Quangos are often being challenged simply on the grounds that they are expensive (see the debate between Demos and the Audit Commission on these blog pages).

And the pursuit of cuts in spending is rapidly becoming a national test of artificial political virility instead of social policy sanity.

Interesting, then, that all the talk in the social care world is of creating a new quango – a college, or even a royal college, of social work, which the Social Work Task Force has been seriously debating in the past few months.
Interesting, but eminently unsurprising. Over the past 30 years, it has been frequently argued that the so-called ‘younger’ professions should benefit from the same stamps of approval as the older, largely medical, ones.

Teachers have achieved those aspirations, so why not social work?

Such an institution should sit well in relation to the pitifully few support organisations the social care sector can boast – especially when contrasted with those in the NHS and education systems.

The current architectures would need some rearranging using the principles outlined above and some of those support organisations might need reconstituting, depending on how the new body was put together.

Should the college handle national pay negotiations, for example, as the Royal College of Nursing does but the Royal College of Surgeons does not?

Should it be financed entirely by social worker subscriptions? And exactly what should its relationship be with other, perhaps modified, organisations, such as the British Association of Social Workers, the Social Care Institute for Excellence, the General Social Care Council and the Care Quality Commission?

Looking more deeply into the scope and impact of its role, should it influence student intake, curricula standards and social worker registration?

Maybe it could be empowered to comment on efforts made by employers to create and invest in conducive environments for good social work. Should it be able to grant and withhold a ‘licence to practise’?

These issues will be debated to and fro in the months to come. As they should be. And so must the role of delivery organisations in every sector, their inter-relationships, their collective value and their individual identity and integrity.

That sort of exercise can be fruitful, creative and of public benefit. It can re-establish the clarities and simplicities that, over time, can be lost, as institutions gather a life, an identity and, very often, a will of their own.

But those benefits will accrue only if quango critiques aren’t conducted amid a recessionary slash and burn hysteria, and where the objective is better government, not better bottom lines.

Jenny Owen is president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services


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