the Desert I love to ride,
With the silent Bush-boy alone by my side:
O’er the brown Karroo where the bleating cry
Of the springbok’s fawn sounds plaintively;
And the timorous quagga’s shrill whistling neigh
Is heard by the fountain at twilight grey.
Quangos and Quaggas. I don’t know why I associate the two in
my mind, it may be the way they both sound to my ear or the superficial
similarities these two creatures present to my curious way of
For those who do not know, a Quango is a Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental
Organisation. Or to use the vernacular, they are committees of
varying sizes and durations set up by governments to further their
policies. Those of short duration are sometime called task forces;
they are set up to look at an issue, report their recommendations
and then disband. The problem is that they tend to outlive their
What is a Quagga? As Thomas Pringle’s poem suggests, it was
a species of the horse family which looked half-horse and half-zebra
having stripes which ran from the head to chest. They were hunted
to extinction in Africa in the 1870s and the last captive one
died in an Amsterdam zoo in 1883. A photograph of one can be seen
The Quango, having no natural predator and being reared by man
rather than being hunted down by him, has proliferated to extraordinary
degrees in Scotland. They now number 102 compared to the United
Kingdom total of 303. In other words, Scotland, with one-tenth
of the UK population, has one-third of the Quangos. It is no wonder
that many have called for a cull of this beast and Henry McLeish
(Scotland’s First Minister) even promised a “bonfire of the quangos”.
The only bonfires seen so far in Scotland are of the foot-and-mouth
Like the Quagga, the Quango is a strange looking cross between
two different things. It’s rear end looks distinctively democratic
and accountable but the front part is definitely statist and bureaucratic.
They are the curious creation of the incumbent Labour government
which bred 295 such creatures in the first 18 months of power
and are filled with people chosen by politicians rather than voters.
Such a State-empowered selection process almost guarantees State-empowering
Unlike the Quagga, it is very much alive. When the Quagga was
in its nadir years, the British Empire was at its zenith and was
being run on a fraction of the bureaucrats and advisors we now
see meeting in numerous committee rooms. To quote David McLetchie,
Scottish Tory Leader: “No wonder the costs of government in
Scotland have risen by £50 million in the last four years. The
Scottish Executive’s solution to most things is to set up a working
party to report back. This kind of culture is paralysing government
and has been used as a substitute for decision-making.”
I couldn’t put it better myself. Our leaders have forgotten
how to make decisions.
To expose the government’s interference in every aspect of life,
we have a quango for every aspect of life. Time does permit me
to tell of such luminous sub-species as the Independent Scientific
Group on Cattle TB nor the Air Quality Forum.
The two which do spring to mind are the Scottish Qualification
Authority (SQA) and Learning and Teaching Scotland. The
latter recently gained notoriety by adding a book called Taking
Sex Seriously to the approved list of resources for sex education
in State schools. This book, to the chagrin of family and church
groups, discusses sado-masochism, anal sex and group sex. The
Scottish government has refused to remove it from the list. I
guess this is Scotland, post-section 28.
But the quango which really screwed up last year was the SQA.
The SQA is responsible for marking and distributing school examination
results to expectant pupils across Scotland. Last year, the software
known as APS, which automatically graded students’ continual assessment
records with the final exams, failed gloriously in losing the
records of thousands of school kids.
All told, 17,000 students were caught up in the debacle as markers
and teachers called back from holiday feverishly tried to correct
the mistakes before the universities’ intake for new students
was completed. Many students appealed and many had to retake their
exams one year later. This is what is normally known as an utter
The various idiosyncrasies of statist bureaucrats were shown
up that lamentable summer.
Firstly, they love to process information – it is the food and
drink of the bureaucrat for it begats forms and questionnaires.
We see this in the requirement that the student is assessed over
the whole academic year rather than the short, sharp burst of
exam week. That means more work for teachers and schools. These
were the records lost by the APS software which could not cope
with the demands of it creators.
Secondly, they must waste a lot of money to process this information.
The APS system was written in-house by their own software team.
Statists have an infatuation with writing their own software.
They love to reinvent the wheel over and over again when the software
offered by the free market will probably do with modifications.
But, no, this is State
business and requires State software!
As a software engineer myself, I laugh at the arrogance of State-run
software projects. The number of such projects which have been
shelved, came in years late or fell flat on their faces such as
APS is legendary. State paid engineers are, on average, less skilled
than the private sector because the State cannot hope to compete
with the wages which recruit the best. Therefore, it was no surprise
that this fiasco ensued when the project came in so late and so
Don’t get me wrong, private sector software can also come in
late and improperly tested; but the offending parties do not escape
unscathed like public sector software does. Thus, the culture
of the free market which drives change, innovation and efficiency
is not to be found in State code-houses where lack of accountability
or reward leads to sluggish progress.
Compare and contrast this with the free market leaders of the
Internet revolution, Cisco Systems, who have a policy of “managing
out” the worst performing 5% of engineering staff. Such a scheme
of “natural selection” would never be seen in the public sector.
Moreover, public sector bodies such as the SQA have budgets.
If they do not spend them on something then the Treasury will
assume they have been given too much and reduce it next fiscal
year. So what do they do? They spend it on anything which looks
plausible, be it new PCs, new libraries, new desks, whatever!
The leanness of the private sector and the bloatedness of the
public sector in all its glory.
So far, the SQA has spent an extra £3 million of their budget
trying to ensure that this debacle does not happen again in the
next few months. The signs are not good.