You've Been Quangoed!

Afar in 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 thinking.

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 pre-ordained duration.

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 here.

Taxonomy

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 u201Cbonfire of the quangosu201D. The only bonfires seen so far in Scotland are of the foot-and-mouth variety.

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 recommendations.

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: u201CNo 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.u201D

I couldn't put it better myself. Our leaders have forgotten how to make decisions.

Speciation

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 shambles.

Unnatural selection

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 untested.

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 u201Cmanaging outu201D the worst performing 5% of engineering staff. Such a scheme of u201Cnatural selectionu201D 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.

  • They are still 2,000 markers short of their target despite a 50% rise in fees (those public sectors wages again).
  • The amount of data to be processed is up by 40% with the introduction of the new Advanced Higher qualifications (those information-loving bureaucrats again).
  • The same APS software is being used. Most of the money has been spent on overtime and doubling software staff in patching up this monolithic piece of bespoke code.
  • It has refused to simplify the forms used in recording exam information (probably because it would take more time to rewrite the suspect software than rewrite forms).

I hope it does work well for the sake of those young people but why does the State need to do this in the first place (even private school exams have to jump through this hoop)? One can see the sense in having a uniform university entrance examination but not in all the eggs being put in this one quango basket.

If the private schools had been allowed to tender contracts for third party marking and auditing (Or mark their own pupils' exams?), then it would have been a glorious day for free enterprise last year as the S.S. SQA submerged and the world beheld the smaller private sector solutions staying afloat. Unfortunately, they sink or swim with the SQA for the time being.

Mass extinction

It should be the Quango and not the Quagga, which is extinct today. A downsized State has no need of them and they hinder the democratic process by replacing the voter with the State-accredited u201Cexpert.u201D They merely perpetuate bureaucracy and postpone leadership decisions. This is abundantly clear when we are told that task forces were set up with two year lifespans. This suggests one thing to me – it will probably take them two years to come to a decision.

It is time to end the shrill, whistling neighs we hear emanating from those closed committee doors.

April 19, 2001

Roland Watson writes from Edinburgh, Scotland.