Quasi-Governmental Bodies Research Paper

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Quasi-governmental (q-g) bodies exist in their thousands, particularly in the developed countries. Their degree of quasi-official standing varies greatly. A simple typology, with examples, would offer (a) direct public services by national government (‘g’) itself (e.g., US Post Office); (b) indirect service by a state industry (‘q-g’) (e.g., the UK’s Royal Mail); (c) a more indirect service by a wide variety of ‘agencies,’ ‘quangos’ (the loose British term) or ‘public bodies.’ This wider q-g class extends to commercial firms and other private bodies which contract, in some sense, with government to provide a regulated service, perhaps in a privileged market position (telephone, bus or train companies in many countries). Given their official legal status as companies, foundations, charities, etc., these latter deliverers of public services are more ‘quasi-private’ than quasi-governmental.

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When the state creates or sponsors a body to act as its agent, problems of democratic accountability are raised and can only be managed politically rather than solved by any particular method of appointment or regulatory regime. These relationships do not involve full privatization (sale of public assets into the private sector) but may involve contracting public sector work to the private sector or to this third sector of q-g bodies.

1. The Quasi-Governmental Sectors

In the more advanced and elaborate political systems, quasi-governmental (q-g) bodies have increasingly come to deliver or even devise public policies and services on a noncivil service basis. Managerial assertions that the q-g approach to public services offers better quality have claimed intellectual support from organization theory. Political assertions that the state should itself perform fewer tasks in general and avoid some particular types of task altogether have arisen from antistatist, procommercial or procivil society values. Separating practical issues of how to improve public policy design and delivery from ideological and normative issues of what the state should be doing with its direct budgets and civil service cadres is an essential step in understanding the q-g phenomenon.

Any body which is not part of central or local government may be intended (or may come) to act in an q-g role. Its formal standing may be as an official body (‘agency’ or, in the UK, ‘quango’ – quasiautonomous national government organization), perhaps specifically created by law (‘statutory’) with its own controlling board. It may be a corporation (company, firm) whether ‘for-profit’ (commercial) or ‘not-for-profit’ (philanthropic, charitable). It may be a voluntary membership organization made up of individuals, corporations (a trade association) or other types of body such as schools or colleges. Whatever it once was or may appear to still be, any body which stands outside the formal state bureaucracy may come to behave as a quasi-official extension of state authority. This process commonly has a legal basis (the body undertakes government contracts to provide public services) or a financial one (receiving official grants for its charitable, artistic, or equivalent work). Occasionally, a private body becomes, in effect, quasigovernmental without contracts or other money passing to it but on a simply political and psychological level: the body helps the government by providing information and access to a problem area or target group and is rewarded with consultative status which draws it close to official policies and thinking.

2. Government-Appointed Bodies

The rise of a quasi-governmental sector in advanced political systems displays two broad types of body within great variety of detail: ‘public bodies’ created by governments to do a policy job on a q-g basis, and existing private bodies (commercial, philanthropic, representative, or fraternal) which become significantly q-g in their attitude and behaviour. The former group is always more prominent and significant for public service delivery and therefore also for the problem of ‘independence versus accountability’ which arises from unelected bodies disposing of public functions and budgets. These bodies are distinguishable from central or local government’s own bureaucratic cadres by their separate titles, budgets, governing boards and (latterly) development and ‘business’ plans, performance targets and other fashionable banners (even though mainstream civil services now often also display them). It is the separate, government-appointed and paid board which most clearly distinguishes these q-g bodies from the government’s own direct operations because this board is a legal entity and employer, doing its work through its own staff and contracted or cooperative links with other bodies, including commercial suppliers.

Various terms have been applied since the q-g sector first attracted systematic academic attention some 30 years ago (Smith and Hague 1971, Smith 1975). The term ‘the contract state’ reflected the US scene with its easier acceptance of business-type contracts for public programs, notably during and after the War on Poverty period. British assumptions (and therefore language) about public services eschewed talk of contracts, although a few had long existed, in public education, for example (Hague et al. 1975). Different theories of the essential exclusivity of state functions were encouraging or discouraging new forms of ‘agency’ or ‘intermediary body’ in different European systems, notably in the more pluralist Netherlands or Scandinavia and the more statist France or Italy, respectively.

The British tradition combined a strong state theory, stewarded by a very powerful senior civil service, within a quite rich civil society context— including, for example, the senior professions and leading charities at national level. Nominated public bodies with specialist remits and only generalized ‘upwards’ accountability to government ministers (and none ‘downwards’ to users or recipients of their services) were quite familiar devices. In this soil, the British ‘quango’ form multiplied (Barker 1982). The flexibility and precise control offered by a singlepurpose public body was generally irresistible to both parties in government and to their senior civil servants who continually steer and supervise these bodies. By 1996, a properly functional independent analysis of British appointed public bodies found some 6,400 being funded (and therefore in some way controlled) by central government. The 5,750 executive (cf. purely advisory) bodies were judged to have spent some £60B of public money in 1994–5, an increase of 50 percent at constant prices in 16 years, following continual transfers of expenditure functions from central and local governments to new nominated bodies and the creation of new programs under these ‘quango’ auspices (Hall and Weir 1996).

3. The Politics Of Quasi-Governmental Bodies

The most ideological and most partisan of political debates about q-g bodies deliberately created by the state seems to have arisen in the UK: the ‘quango issue.’ Superficially (and tediously) the two main political parties have, for 25 years, accused each other of abuse of the patronage involved. A more serious criticism of all appointees is their lack of accountability. Continental Europe seems to have been spared much of this British conflict, perhaps because business, labor unions, the churches and other civil society formations accept each other and expect to share in delivering public services through special agencies or boards, under broadly consensual political oversight. The Dutch have their three ‘pillars’ of social service delivery (Catholic, Protestant, and secular), while in Germany it is officially polite for organized capital and/organized labor to call themselves ‘social partners’ (Barker 1997). The USA no more follows that custom than does the UK, but the vast proliferation of appointed and joint bodies which constitute ‘America’s quangos’ seems not to have sparked either union–business rivalry as to patronage or specific partisan hostility. The long-term right wing rumblings against ‘big government’ subsumes these many ‘agencies’ within broader issues of overall federal or state civil service numbers and public expenditure levels. Academic critiques have often also taken a broad view of problems and pathologies (Burns 1994, Carter 1994, Kettl 1988).

4. The Rationale Of Quasi-Governmental Bodies

The principal practical rationale for creating a new public body to tackle either a novel or a familiar policy task is its specialist character. The new single-purpose agency or quango has been expected to succeed whereas the old, multipurpose government department would wearily add this extra burden to its already overstretched bureaucracy. If the new body’s budget and staff are also outside the official civil service total budget and numbers, and if a small, ‘dedicated’ (specialist) office can bring sensitivity rather than standardized bureaucracy to some novel public policy challenge (such as encouraging ethnic or gender rights, offering drug or HIV health care, making grants to artists and theaters, or promoting community development) then there is no contesting this way forward. The same applies where an existing private body is to be a vehicle for such novel tasks by becoming a government contractor or grantee in return for its experienced and expert work on policy design or delivery.

A further rationale may well apply when professional expertise is crucial to a policy or program. Senior scientists and other experts are very unlikely to become civil servants, much less join the military, and can therefore be employed by the state only on their own ground and terms. The US Air Force and US Army could not get the high-quality operations researchers or mathematicians they needed except by founding the RAND Corporation (initially to analyze bombing targets in the USSR) and an applied mathematics centre on the University of Wisconsin’s campus, respectively. Even in the crisis of war, the assorted, mainly British, academic intellectuals who were recruited to break the Enigma and other enemy codes at Bletchley Park (‘Station X’) in 1940 or the scientists and mathematicians organized into the Manhattan Project to build the US atom bomb would perform their best, or even perform at all, only in a carefully managed academic and civilian setting, as their governments realized. These civilian–military contrasts were merely one example of the lessons of organization theory which have declared the ‘flat’ (not hierarchical) ‘open’ (not sectionalized) ‘organic’ or flexible and small agency or company to be the best setting for creative, innovative, interactive or sensitive tasks. As modern governments have been pressed into policy work which is either technically demanding (requiring expert staff ) or socially sensitive (requiring nontraditional official styles and methods) so the appeal of specialist, flexible, and suitably qualified staff working in a small single-issue body has steadily increased. With obvious differences in funding and controls, these basic characteristics make either a specifically created new public agency (‘quango’) or an existing private body drawn in to q-g status the attractive option.

5. The Dilemma Of Independence vs. Accountability

The essence of the q-g problem is that practical reasoning favors a democratically responsive government trying to obtain good policy or policy delivery by creating or recruiting a specialist agency (‘quango’) to concentrate on that job. The trickier the task, in political, technical, or social terms, the greater the appeal of this method, in many cases at least. But this very difficulty and sensitivity prompts critics to claim that democratic accountability to elected representatives (national or local) is particularly needed. Having an unelected body of government appointees running (say) the local mass transit, or even regular public grants to theaters or art galleries may be tolerable but life and death decisions on (say) drug budget allocations to hospitals or decisions affecting employment must be taken directly by elected representatives. To produce the advantages of flexibility, innovation, and effective informality and to attract the most talented and expert staffs or consultants, a q-g body does need to be independent of day-to-day control.

This dilemma of operational independence (in search of creative quality of service) versus public accountability (in support of democratic legitimacy) can only be softened, not solved. A q-g body’s initial pioneering independence could be time-limited and fuller reporting and answering of questions and debate then imposed upon it. Turnover of board members could be formally encouraged or even required. In general, an ‘explanatory accountability’ regime is needed for the army of q-g bodies which advanced political systems now maintain (AMA 1995). Although specific cases or issues are not normally removable or reversible, board members can be made to explain their views and decisions. Rules requiring openness, transparency, and full reporting would all illuminate this explanatory accountability. Even this working culture would inhibit some valuable creative independence in some policy fields. A statutory duty to explain itself to a possibly critical public would be a major challenge for any q-g body, particularly if the courts are also open to calls for their judicial review of any such explanations of actual decisions which appear to have been based on mistakes or illogical argument. The standard work on the British position (Skelcher 1998) explores these ideas.

6. A New Sector Of Government And Society

So many tasks of policy formation and delivery; of regulation of private activity ‘affected with the public interest’ (to use the traditional US phrase); and of social innovation are now required in advanced democratic societies that the rise of this middle sector, standing between state and private sectors can be no surprise. Its lack of much political controversy in these systems suggests a declining popular interest in democratic principles in favor of practical, consumerist attitudes to public services.


  1. AMA (Association of Metropolitan Authorities) 1995 Changing the Face of Quangos: Proposals for the Reform of Local Appointed Bodies. AMA, London
  2. Barker A (ed.) 1982 Quangos in Britain: The Making of Public Policy Networks. Macmillan, London
  3. Barker A 1997 Other people’s quangos: Quasi-government in seven countries. In: Flinders M (ed.) How to Make Quangos More Democratic. Charter 88 Publications, London
  4. Burns N 1994 The Formation of American Local Governments: Private Values in Public Institutions. Oxford University Press, Oxford
  5. Carter S L 1994 The Confirmation Mess: Cleaning-Up the Federal Appointment Process. Basic Books, New York
  6. Hague D C, Mackenzie W J M, Barker A (eds.) 1975 Public Policy and Private Interests: The Institutions of Compromise. Macmillan, London
  7. Hall W, Weir S 1996 The untouchables: Power and accountability in the Quango state. Democratic Audit Paper 8 The Scarman Trust, London
  8. Kettl D F 1988 Government by Proxy: Managing Federal Programs. Congressional Quarterly Press, Washington, DC
  9. Select Committee on Public Administration (1999) Quangos Sixth Report, 1998–99, HC 209 – 1 and 2, 9 November 1999. The Stationery Office, London, Vols 1 and 2I
  10. Skelcher C 1998 The Appointed State: Quasi-Governmental Organizations and Democracy. Open University Press, Buckingham, UK
  11. Smith B L R (ed.) 1975 The New Political Economy: The Public Use of the Private Sector. Macmillan, London
  12. Smith B L R, Hague D C (eds.) 1971 The Dilemma of Accountability in Modern Government: Independence Versus Control. Macmillan, London
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