Strike a light and send worthless agencies out in a blaze of glory

IS THE bonfire of the quangos finally about to begin? John Swinney's speech to the SNP conference in Aviemore at the weekend suggested the restructuring of Scottish Enterprise would be just the start of mergers and shutdowns aimed at decluttering public life. And direct elections to health boards would start the appointment of a new set of "can-do" people who will lead the way.

Does this suggest the current set of people serving on public boards "can't do" - and is the constant criticism of quangos without the much-heralded bonfire - or even mild pruning - good for the workforce or for those unpaid souls who sit on quango boards?

Scotland is facing a collapse in the number of people coming forward to sit on public agencies. And the period of sharpest decline coincides with the SNP's fiercest talk of firelighters and kindling. To be fair, it also matches the media's hottest roasting of enterprise bosses and overspent health board chiefs. But there are other factors.

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People are busy. Public service ads are lacklustre. Many talented Scots believe public Scotland has been run by Labour placemen and women, and those outside the party machine have failed to apply.

Whatever the truth of that, the evidence of decline in public interest is indisputable.

Since 2003 the average number of applications for a position on the board of a public body in Scotland has fallen by 30 per cent.

Three years ago, 29 per cent of posts attracted 12 or fewer applications. Today, 35 per cent of posts attract that low number.

Diversity is hardly thriving either. The number of female applicants has remained at 30 per cent and the percentage of women chairing public boards has fallen. Last year just two of 24 chairs appointed were women.

In some areas of Glasgow the minority ethnic population numbers almost 40 per cent, yet few are represented on Glasgow's health boards, even though the number of applicants from black or ethnic minority backgrounds is rising - from 5 per cent to 8 per cent over the past three years.

According to statistics from the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments in Scotland, it's the same with disability. Last year 6.7 per cent of applicants declared a disability, but only 2.2 per cent of current board members are disabled.

Naturally, some applicants will not pass muster. But the selection of key public appointees is made by civil servants and presented to ministers. Would it silence any suspicion about the process if that whittling down of applicants was done by independent advisers - indeed, isn't that exactly what the Commissioner for Public Appointments is meant to be doing herself?

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Alec Neil MSP is about to submit a bill to let parliamentary committees interview ministerial nominees for important public positions. But appointments can only be as "adventurous" as the folk that apply.

And even the number of applications from the core group of 50-something males is falling - down by more than 10 per cent in the past three years.

So what's going wrong?

Thousands of activists poured on to the streets in May to fight for control over the Scottish Government, but few of them would dream of applying to become quango board members - even though they control massive budgets that can stifle or empower society as surely as any government department.

So with Bonfire Night approaching, it's time for the SNP to put up or shut up. Should Scotland's citizens join quangos or shun them? Will the government name, shame, praise, axe and spare or continue to tar all of quango Scotland with the same brush?

Few rural Scots I've encountered have warm and fuzzy feelings for bodies such as Scottish Natural Heritage. But Scotland's world-acclaimed children's hearing system is also run by a public board.

One size does not fit all. We need to know which quangos have exceeded their purpose or lifespan and which are doing fine. But

instead of bonfires, mergers and streamlining are the order of the day.

Plans are afoot for a rural delivery service to end over-regulation by a welter of duplicating public agencies. Soon, for example, a fish farm currently being inspected by four public agencies will deal with just one case officer at a single one-stop shop.

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Fine. Just like private utilities which dig the road up one after another, public agencies should be penalised if they can't work together. But that still doesn't answer the main question. Do we need all these public agencies in the first place?

The government wants to avoid compulsory redundancies and confrontation with the unions. But it's hard to see how efficiency savings can be made unless some parts of some agencies go. And harder to see how that can be achieved without a master plan. And nearly impossible to see why citizens struggling against the unassailable authority of a single quango should rejoice at the prospect of several "ganging up".

Where's the vision? Sweeping unsatisfactory public bodies into a few self-reinforcing super quangos won't change the bureaucratic, over-regulating, unresponsive culture some have developed. Quite the opposite.

Under-performing, unnecessary or duplicating bits of public life need to be pruned, not merged. Previous governments have shrunk from the challenge - appointing regulators to keep errant quangos on track instead of trying to manage and refocus them.

All of this has added to the burgeoning cost of government and diminished the status of Scotland's public bodies.

Naturally the prospect of lost jobs is grim. But in the interests of re-energising civic Scotland, ministers must keep the Scottish Bluebells handy. And think of using them soon.