The 'Castration' of the Quangos
In my view good policy is made when there is robust questioning and open debate about the merits or otherwise of particular interventions. Naturally any policy or decision will lead to winners and losers and it is important to understand who these are and how these vary across time and space. As part of this process we see many organisations arguing how the perceived impact of proposed policies or plans will/have affect them. These "champions" are numerous and diverse and form part of a wider governance agenda that is both complex and messy, but reflects the political arena in which policy is now fashioned.
In the natural environment arena I feel there has been a deafening silence from some bodies I see as natural heritage 'champions', which not only weakens the policy process itself, but could lead to such organisations becoming forgotten in the public imagination and ultimately extinguished as austerity bites fuelling a further bonfire or merger of the quangos. This blog focusses on what I see as the effective 'castration' of the quangos using the example of agencies under the jurisdiction of the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
These Non-Departmental Public Bodies are positioned at arm's length from government meaning that they are not an integral part of any government department although Ministers are ultimately responsible for their activities. Their decisions are made by a Board, appointed by government itself. Such bodies have been heavily criticized with legitimate concerns over their democratic mandate given that they use relatively large sums of public money. Consequently, the new government came confidently into office promising a bonfire of the quangos.
In the Defra family of quangos they have largely remained intact although their 'voices' have been muted by a new code of 'behaviours'. These limit staff actions in the public domain. In particular there is no ability for staff to openly criticise any policy coming out from government nor to speak openly about negative policy impacts. Crucially, agencies are not allowed to promote themselves. In effect this renders them little more than government puppets with a three line whip, with a metaphorical 'Andrew Mitchell' lurking at the gate!
Yet when I am asked who is the champion of the natural heritage my answer is Natural England. However, their current work rarely allows them to assume that position. This matters as today we have a government mantra of economic development being thrust upon government departments with nature seen as an enemy of enterprise; yet with little disquiet evident from Natural England. For example, when the media was alive with debates concerning the impact of the National Planning Policy framework there was little substantive criticism or input from Natural England despite their expertise in landscape and biodiversity matters.
My concern is about a paradox here in terms of how freedom of expression is seen as integral to the British condition yet not for these Defra agencies, particualry gvien the fact that they are supposed to be at arm's length. A further concern is that as a result of such enforced behaviours they become forgotten players in the political arena as the public become less aware of who they are and what they do. How many readers can tell me without looking in Google what Natural England do?
Here, the proposed sell-off of forestry provides a salutary lesson in that the public responded with shock and anger at the perceived loss of public ownership of the forest estate. This awareness was down to the high profile activities of the Forestry Commission in providing multiple-use benefits from woodlands for recreation in many parts of the UK, changing their previous focus on timber production alone. I fear today if there would be a similar outcry if the long thought about privatisation of National Nature Reserves or Sites of Special Scientific Interest came into being as politicians seek to raid potential piggybanks for more money.
I would like to hear more Natural England staff speaking openly about their work and how policy or political decisions are helping or hindering achievement of their goals. I would like to see a natural heritage champion who is a critical friend and who, at arms length, can use that distance to improve policy responses. I value critical friends in my own work; so should the government.
It does appear that in the policy making process criticism is not wanted and hence we see the 'omnishambles' everywhere in much of current public policy and decision making. U turns are everywhere and not just ocnfiend to the Department of Transport.
Simply silencing people results in poor policy, poor decision-making and poorly motivated staff. It also might inadvertently lead to a public becoming completely unaware of who or what these agencies are all about. We need champions that do provide robust debate. I hope this starts one.