On taking power in 2010, the Coalition government moved quickly to implement its much-publicised ‘bonfire of the quangos’ – the abolition or merger of more than a hundred non-departmental government bodies, whose remit ranged from the direct delivery of services, through to research, investment and regulation. The creative sector was by no means exempt from this, with the shutting down of the screen agencies, the UK Film Council and the regional development agencies, many of which had been significant investors in creative industries clusters around the country. Other bodies, such as the BFI, Nesta and the Arts Council, took on new responsibilities and underwent significant organisational restructures.
But, four years on from the bonfire, what is striking is not so much the absence but rather the number of creative industries bodies established by this government. A digital media business considering what help or funding it can receive from the public sector is once again facing the proverbial alphabet soup of acronyms and sector-specific agencies: Creative England, Innovate UK, Connected Digital Economy Catapult, Tech City UK, NCUB, the Open Data Institute, IC Tomorrow, Knowledge Transfer Network, the Creative Industries Council – none of which existed four years ago. The regional bodies may have gone, but there would seem to be more agencies – particularly national ones – than ever. When it comes to the creative industries, it seems that the government hasn’t presided over a process of reduction or rationalisation but rather proliferation and muddle.
In this regard, the government hasn’t been so different from its predecessors. The concept of specialist government agencies as distinct from ministerial departments was largely initiated by the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s, a period which saw the establishment of organisations ranging from English Heritage to Business Link. On becoming Prime Minister, Tony Blair promised to ‘dismantle the quango state’ only to oversee a major expansion of such bodies, founding many of the creative industries support agencies that would be abolished a decade later.
The familiar cycle of new government initiative followed by strategy, delivery, review, restructure, rebrand, re-launch, restructure, merger, abolition is a dismaying one. For creative businesses themselves, not to mention those working to support them, this continual organisational churn has resulted in paralysis, confusion and exasperation. As with those working in sectors such as health and education, the frequent plea heard even from those dissatisfied with current arrangements is for no further rounds of innovation, reform and change.
With a general election just six months away, there is an opportunity to break the cycle and approach things more thoughtfully. This should start with an acknowledgement that quangos will always need to be part of the policy and support landscape for a sector as dynamic as the creative industries. Facing the choice between centralised government systems and market mechanisms, quangos represents a valuable middle ground, which, at their best, can remain answerable to government while also responding to business need.
So we shouldn’t be asking if there are too many or too few quangos, rather it’s a case of whether the ones we have are doing a good job or not, and how can they be helped to do it better. We shouldn’t be looking, as a matter of course, to reduce them. Nor should we be setting any new ones up, as if they are the solution to any policy challenge. Governments, and the think tanks that advise them, may love to shake things up and launch initiatives, but often what creative businesses themselves most want is stability and continuity. The following won’t have the same headline grabbing potential of either establishing or scrapping an agency, but might get better results:
- Implement a much more joined-up approach. Something like digital media crosses the ministries of culture, business, education and much more. Instead of establishing new agencies, there should be a behind-the-scenes process of getting politicians and senior officials together to co-ordinate action. This won’t result in any grand new strategies or reports but rather aim to reduce duplication and prioritize investment.
- Quangos need to be as innovative, responsive and fast moving as the business they support. This means that they need to be established with confidence, and to be given the freedom to take risks and make autonomous investment decisions. Governments will always face political pressure, but over-managing and continually tinkering with delivery agencies only undermines their effectiveness and credibility.
- Give powers and funds to cities and local authorities rather than national bodies. Local government has already demonstrated in places ranging from Nottingham to Hackney to Dundee that, even with limited resources, they can grow creative industries clusters and successfully establish genuinely business-led agencies to deliver the comprehensive support that entrepreneurs require.
David Adam, Global Cities