If quangos are not really independent and do have in the end to accept some accountability to people and Parliament, how should the relationship between Ministers and quangos be conducted?
When I was a Minister with quangos reporting to me I defined my roles as:
1. Establishing aims and requirements for the Agency in accordance with their Statute
2. Settling budgets with the Agency
3. Reviewing and influencing their policies to achieve their aims
4. Monitoring and reviewing their performance
5. Acting as the customer and taxpayer voice as they were usually monopolies
To do this I established a pattern of review meetings with Chairmen and Chief Executives. The minimum annual requirement was a budget meeting to discuss the following year’s total spending and sources of income, and a Corporate Plan Review meeting to discuss aims, achievements and performance.
I would conduct my own review of their requests of increases in fees and charges, as often a quango that thought the grant settlement was too mean would simply carry on spending and aim to send the bill to the captive customers. I was there to represent them to the Treasury if there was a good case for them to receive more grant in aid. I usually found that they had generous budgets and what was needed was better financial management to achieve higher value for money.
I found that where I had some professional expertise based on past employment and training I was more likely to be more involved in the detail of the quango in our private exchanges. I was responsible for a period for the financial regulators of all the non banks, where it was possible as Minister to have productive discussions about what we were trying to do and how you could best achieve it. Where a quango dealt with something like food science where I have no qualifications I had to take the professional judgements on trust, though could and did still ask questions to expose any inconsisencies, poor performance or areas where professional judgements were divided.
The truth is quangos spend a lot of public money. They have a surrogate tax power in the case of the monopoly regulators. Their independence is subject to Parliament and Ministers telling them their aims and deciding how much they can spend. Ministers therefore need to review them closely, demand improvements, and change managements if they start to fail.