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Christopher Mackie: Politically useful and problematic to remove – a bonfire seems unlikely

By Christopher Mackie

FACELESS "quangocrats" have been – and continue to be – an easy target for politicians of all hues, who insist these unelected and highly paid executives could be culled quite successfully with few tears shed for their demise.

Gordon Brown and then-shadow secretary of state for Scotland George Robertson both spoke of a "bonfire of the quangos" in the run-up to the 1997 election, a theme picked up by Alex Salmond in 1999, who said setting light to the bloated pile of quangos would be a priority of any SNP government.

Despite this, governments at Westminster and Holyrood have found culling such bodies, or even paring their influence, harder to achieve when in power. It remains to be seen whether a Conservative government would have the stomach to follow through on David Cameron\’s pledge to "take control of quangos".

There is no doubt these bodies are politically convenient for ministers. Their arm\’s-length nature gives politicians an easy scapegoat for public service blunders, while offering opportunities for reflected glory in cases of outstanding performance.

Governments would therefore find a wholesale abandonment of this political comfort blanket – as proposed by Reform Scotland – difficult to contemplate.

In addition, the plans would dramatically increase the size and scope of central government at a stroke, a difficult proposition in an age in which the notion of big government spending is increasingly frowned upon.

But it is on the practical level that government might find most difficulty in applying the Reform Scotland proposals.

Many advisory and executive agencies contain a great deal of expertise on subjects gleaned by professionals over many years of working in the field. Bringing them into the fold of government raises questions about their independence as well as fears that they may struggle to cope with the culture of a civil service more used to directing policy than implementing it.

To those difficulties you could also add the logistical nightmare of trying to renegotiate employment contracts or leases taken out by quangos, many of which may have years to run.

So, how does one solve a "problem" like the quangos?

If successive governments have not found a remedy to the perceived problem, what chance have future administrations, even with a tighter-than-ever public sector budgets to spur them on?

Perhaps they don\’t have to, because – whisper it – maybe, just maybe, our quangos do a pretty good job.