Analysis: Lack of quango transparency does Scottish public a disservice

Lack of accountability comes amid proliferation of quangos under SNP rule

It ought to have been a straightforward story to report - how much money are Scotland’s quangos spending across key areas? In reality, it proved a slog, requiring over 300 emails, numerous phone calls, and more than the occasional polite reminder that the disclosure of such information is not a courtesy, but a legal requirement.

The end result is in no way a complete picture - several organisations proved unable, or unwilling, to provide numbers - but as well as piecing together a snapshot of the overall expenditure, a different, and arguably more important story began to emerge.

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While we now know that Scotland’s quangos are spending at least £120 million a year on public relations and external consultants - with health organisations adding at least £20m to that total - a crucial takeaway from The Scotsman’s Inside Scotland’s Quangos series is the way in which a law designed to improve transparency across the public sector is being, at best, widely misinterpreted, and at worst, openly flouted.

While some organisations are efficient administrators, providing their spending records in line with the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act, they are the exception. As The Scotsman reports today, out of 114 quangos, a staggering 66 had failed to publish the information.

Why does any of this matter, you might ask? Well, at the risk of inviting accusations of sanctimony, it is only right that we are able to check that public funds are being spent properly, efficiently, and effectively by organisations that receive billions of pounds in taxpayers’ money each year. Such checks are especially important at a time when budgets are being cut and public services are under severe pressure.

In all, there are currently 136 quangos across Scotland – although that figure is subject to debate - ranging from highly visible bodies like Scottish Enterprise and Creative Scotland, through to curiosities such as the Office of the King’s Printer for Scotland and Wave Energy Scotland. However, that total does not include a range of other public sector organisations, such as councils and further education colleges.

Since the SNP came to power 17 years ago, it has abolished or merged dozens of quangos - a process largely driven, ironically, by the PSR legislation. That helped drive down the number of organisations from a record high of 199 in a so-called “bonfire of the quangos.” The government aimed to cull the number of bodies to just 115 by 2012, but since then, the number has grown. Indeed, according to the Scottish Government’s own directory of public bodies, some 49 quangos have been established since the SNP’s historic 2007 election win, although that number includes organisations formed via mergers.

Scores of quangos have flouted legislation designed to make their spending more transparent.Scores of quangos have flouted legislation designed to make their spending more transparent.
Scores of quangos have flouted legislation designed to make their spending more transparent.

At a time when public finances are straitened, the cost of those organisations is attracting greater scrutiny. Only last month, Holyrood’s finance committee began taking evidence as part of an inquiry into the network of commissioners across Scotland. There are currently seven, costing £16.6m a year, although an eighth - the Patients Safety Commissioner – was agreed by parliament last September, and a further six commissioners have been proposed. With First Minister John Swinney’s administration facing some very difficult decisions in the weeks and months ahead, that scrutiny will intensify.

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