Bill Jamieson: Time to relight the bonfires – we’ve reached peak quango

Nicola Sturgeon needs to examine the effectiveness of myriad agencies and strategies. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Nicola Sturgeon needs to examine the effectiveness of myriad agencies and strategies. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
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Remember those halcyon days with heady talk of a “bonfire of the quangos”? Dream on. Scotland, says economic think-tank the Fraser of Allander Institute (FoA), is groaning under a clutter of agencies, policy agendas, initiatives and strategy advisers. And there seems no end to the growth of this policy knot-weed.

To prepare readers for what is unfolding, here is a suggested University of Holyrood Economic Growth Examination Paper for aspiring quango-artists and policy wonks.

Answer all questions. Time allowed: as long as you like.

Question one: Name at least three prominent growth rates currently being given for Scotland’s economy and reasons for divergence. Give dates for pending upgrades, downgrades and statistical revisions. Discuss what conclusions can be drawn.

Question two: Nicola Sturgeon has invited you to a meeting on the economy. Do you:

(a) Immediately set up a task force to advise on discussion

(b) Draw up 15-point draft strategy agenda and 30-page advance briefing paper

(c) Nominate 12-member advisory board

(d) Scrap economy ideas and focus on social policy issues

Question three: You are already a member of three economic strategy quangos and are invited to join a fourth. Do you:

(a) Accept but seek clarification on gender equality, LGTB membership and expense allowance.

(b) Suggest more policy quangos on productivity and the demographic challenge – with yourself as chair person.

Question four: You are asked by the Holyrood economy committee to submit ideas for a new policy quango. What are your suggestions?

(a) Urgent establishment of an over-arching, holistic unit with offices, secretariat, computer terminals and furniture to advise on work of all existing quangos

(b) A new body to promote skills and apprenticeships – taking the number of existing bodies to a round dozen

(c) A high level strategic authority to advise on digital connectivity, data mining and complex algorithms

(d) A global growth development unit with appropriate travel budget

Question five: Suggest ways of enhancing Scotland’s economic performance using

(a) A top level Strategic Summit Authority with focus groups covering Scotland’s key growth sectors and over-arching priorities

(b) Examples of improvements to existing economic data (give granular detail)

(c) Point out impossibility of mission, citing Scottish Government worst case Brexit scenario projections to 2030.

Gross exaggeration, you may think. But those tempted to dismiss this as fantasy need only to look at the FoA paper released last week. For it seems we have already reached “peak quango”. The paper attacks the clutter of initiatives coming from the Scottish Government, with all the different strategies and advisory groups looking at Scotland’s economy. These, it warns, can lead to confusion and duplication. It lists no fewer than 16 different strategies across the Scottish Government and its agencies. These include Economic Strategy, Digital Strategy, Energy Strategy, Circular Economy Strategy, Climate Change Plan, Trade and Investment Strategy, Labour Market Strategy, Social Enterprise Strategy, Hydro Nation Strategy and a Strategy Action Plan for Women in Enterprise.

These are in addition to the Manufacturing Action Plan, the Youth Employment Strategy, the Innovation Action Plan, the National Islands Plan, Agenda for Cities and, of course, not forgetting the Arctic Strategy. There are also a number of “sector specific” strategies – including food and drink, tourism, textiles and life sciences, as well as an infrastructure investment plan.

All these strategies are overseen by the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland, Scottish Funding Council, Visit Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, South of Scotland Enterprise Agency, Scottish Futures Trust, Scottish National Investment Bank, Business Gateway and 32 local authorities.

Now several problems are created by this proliferation. It brings confusion of purpose. It dilutes and weakens overall accountability. And it invites failure if so many initiatives and priorities are set beyond the administration’s ability to manage.

Arguably the most searching questions relate to effectiveness. If we have so many agencies and strategies already, why is it that Scotland’s growth rate remains so weak? Surely by now it should be powering ahead on all these cylinders?

Of course, the counter to this is that our growth rate would be even lower than it is – indeed shrinking – were it not for the support of all this quango scaffolding.

But little wonder the FoA feels the need to stress that a “clarity of purpose” is “more important than ever”. Says Professor Graeme Roy: “The past decade has seen a proliferation of different strategies, advisory groups and bodies which have arguably cluttered the policy and delivery landscape. Whilst many will no doubt have improved Scotland’s economic performance, do we know which ones?” He said the “risk” with such an approach could “lead to confusion, a lack of alignment, duplication and weakened accountability”.

And you might wonder why the Scottish Government even bothers, given its repeated forebodings over the effect of Brexit on Scotland’s economy. It never ceases to remind us that a hard Brexit could cost £12.7 billion a year by 2030 and hit Scottish growth by 9 per cent.

The FoA’s own (unchanged) growth forecast for 2018 of 1.2 per cent (against just 0.6 per cent for 2017) is at least more hopeful than the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s 0.7 per cent.

Professor Roy says that while Scotland’s economy continues to grow, albeit at a slow pace, growth in sectors beyond construction “is actually more resilient than the headline figure suggests”.

Support for this guarded view comes from fresh research by the Federation of Small Businesses showing that Scottish business confidence grew in the first quarter of 2018, but firms north of the border remain substantially less optimistic than their UK counterparts.

So, much work still to be done, just to get to pre-referendum levels. But the Scottish Government needs to take a long hard look at whether its proliferation of agencies, initiatives, strategies and plans is helping – or hindering.