You've been Quango'd!, NLGN

Stuart Weir reviews You've been Quango'd! Mapping power across the regions by Chris Leslie and Owen Dallison, NLGN.

A new NLGN report calls for quangos to be more representative.

Inequalities come in all shapes and sizes. The New Local Government Network has just undertaken a survey of 1,000 board members on quangos with "UK or English scope" and is highlighting a neglected dimension of inequality to add to the inequalities of class, power, gender, ethnicity and disability that are already characteristic of these appointed bodies - that of regional unrepresentedness. They show that over half their sample of quangocrats live in London and the south east while northern regions and towns are greatly unrepresented. Around one in six quangocrats live in four central London boroughs - no prizes for guessing; Camden, Westminster, Islington and Kensington & Chelsea. Arts, museums and other cultural bodies are especially "London-centric"; the National Portrait Gallery tops the list with 93 per cent board members from London.

In fact, this regional bias is nothing new. Democratic Audit's 1994 report on the quango state, EGO TRIP, analysed the then public appointments list and found that 56 per cent of those on the list were from the south east and 73.6 per cent were from the 'south'. But it is an aspect of inequality in the quango state that has been neglected in the government's efforts to make quangos more representative and the authors rightly recommend that "national diversity" should be added to the concept of equality in public appointments.

I guess it assists in gaining publicity to say, as NLGN does, that the four London boroughs "have greater influence than the entire North of England" and the authors rightly question why merit - the prevailing official criterion for appointment - "is overwhelmingly visible in the capital city but rapidly less so elsewhere". But this idea that London, rather than powerful Londoners, runs too much of the quango state obscures the basic inequality that the idea of merit promotes. Merit privileges the managerial and professional class, more highly educated people, and white males, at the expense of every other citizen, wherever they live. Greater "national diversity" will not change that. Indeed, the NGLN report gives a hint of this where it observes, "Within each region, there are other concentrations of power, postcodes which are clearly more likely to produce the 'great and the good' for seats on quango boards."

There is an urgent need to break out of the stranglehold of "merit" and to appoint able lay persons from all areas of the country to quango boards, as the Public Administration Committee recommended in July after hearing evidence from Martin Wainwright, Mark Thomas and others. A few quangos already do this. Martin Wainwright and lay board members from the Community Fund gave evidence to the committee showing just how practicable this could be, and indeed the Community Fund, with its regional breakdown, provided a model for how lay representation could be established in the quango state. The government was not impressed. Better still, of course, would be regionally elected quangos, but we are going in the direction now of even larger and more powerful "national" quangos less rooted in communities and the north and more remote from ordinary citizens.

(NLGN, Feb 2007, 42pp)