We need (some) quangos

Published: September 17, 2012

The writer is chairperson of the History Department at Forman Christian College Lahore

A‘quango’ literally stands for: quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation. This term was coined by Alan Pifer at the Carnegie Foundation in 1967 to categorise publicly-funded bodies incorporated in the private sector. Conceived in the 1960s, this idea was quickly taken up by the Conservative government in the UK which set up hundreds of such organisations, especially in the 1980s. The idea was to cut bureaucracy and costs and to increase involvement of people in the government. In a number of these quangos, the managing boards were composed of private sector people, who did not earn a salary but only got some minimal expenses. Quangos also allowed the government to tap into the rich resources of the private sector, both intellectually and materially, in addition to the expertise offered by the civil service. Being outside the ambit of direct government, these organisations also limited political involvement and encouraged long-term, non-partisan and people-focused policies. Today, in the UK, quangos range from museums and galleries, to the British Council, health agencies and several watchdogs. All together, these agencies fill in the gaps left by the government and serve as strong non-partisan organisations for the public good. That said, if the system is not carefully thought out and the need for quangos clearly determined, one can end up with a number of superfluous and useless quangos, as the current government in the UK has realised. Also, unbridled creation of quangos can create more bureaucracy and expenditure in the end, as the current UK government has again realised.

Pakistan is in urgent need for carefully thought out and planned quangos. There are several, mostly obvious, reasons for this. First, the public sector has repeatedly showed itself incapable of policymaking, implementation, administration and accountability. As long as the primary sectors remain under the complete purview of the government, no significant improvement can take place. Secondly, the financial (and intellectual) situation of the government automatically prevents it from undertaking several key projects wholly and so the involvement of the private sector is essential. Thirdly, Pakistan severely lacks the involvement of non-official people in governmental functions. In every successful democracy, people are increasingly being associated with governmental functions — from local school boards, to community centre boards, museum boards, hospital boards and several public sector watchdogs. Their involvement, which is voluntary, is a non-political check on the work of these agencies, where official bureaucratic lethargy and political bickering might hamper progress. The most Pakistan has is official nomination of  ‘eminent’ people to these boards (if they exist or function), which quite simply is a code word for a nice appointment.

From my visits to several libraries in Pakistan, it is clear that only a couple of non-official members ever turn up for board meetings. No wonder then that our libraries are in such a dismal state!

Fourthly, establishment of useful quangos increases awareness and public responsibility. It is a common refrain in Pakistan that everything is the ‘government’s fault’. While the government does set the direction of the country, several smaller issues and even some large ones, can often be dealt with, without consideration of which government is in power. For example, under no government will the objective of a hospital be not to improve itself. The money given to the hospital might fluctuate with the government, but its creative and efficient utilisation should be left to a board composed of a majority of non-official members, who take a keen interest in developing the organisation. Fifthly, and very importantly, regulatory quangos can make a critical difference in developing the country. The examples of Ofcom, and Ofsted, in the UK, among others, clearly show how these authorities should operate and we should try and adapt such bodies for Pakistan. More pertinently, a quango regulating the environment and fire and safety in industries could be one way of preventing the tragedies that were recently witnessed in Karachi and Lahore.

In one of my recent columns, I lamented the fact that our honours list is limited and does not credit those people making a difference at the local level. Perhaps, one of the reasons might also be a dearth of people taking responsibility and joining in with the government to improve local and essential services in a non-partisan and voluntary manner. Pakistan will never progress if everything is left to the government; the people must take responsibility and must get involved.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (7)

  • John B
    Sep 18, 2012 - 1:06AM

    Glad to see sone is crying for the “Republic” and teaching people about the principles of republic.

    Individual responsibility in the collective sphere of the country.

    Recommend

  • Mirza
    Sep 18, 2012 - 3:02AM

    This is the basic problem with the people of Pakistan. All they want is govt to come with a magic lamp and solve their problems. That is why they get so angry against their own elected govt and want to change it with one who would have magic lamp and solve their problems in 90 days.
    I have seen many homes with leaky faucets and water being wasted. Yet it is the govt’s failure to provide them with more water. They do not abuse their cell phones, Internet connections and car gas lines because they have to pre pay for those. We have to teach our kids and grownups to take responsibility of all their actions and accept the results. Blame game is not going to solve any problem. Gas prices are going up globally but Pakistanis want their govt to keep the prices low. Now the food prices are going to go up but they expect the govt to keep them low. It is not in the hands of one country or govt but a global phenomenon and we all have to work for it. Keep the peace in Middle East the prices of gas would come down, continue to burn your country the prices would spiral.
    Let us grow up and take some responsibility for change. Even God helps those who help themselves.Recommend

  • pmbm
    Sep 18, 2012 - 5:40AM

    Absence of honesty, accountability, credibility is the basic problem. If we could find those qualities things will improve no matter what system is in place.

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  • Dipak
    Sep 18, 2012 - 7:18AM

    Good observation Mr. Bangash.

    Recommend

  • Naseer Ahmad
    Sep 18, 2012 - 1:56PM

    The last paragraph of the article is very telling comment. In the wake of 2010 floods both local and foreign NGOs comlained of political pressure for distribution of relief goods.

    Recommend

  • asem
    Sep 18, 2012 - 7:10PM

    i think the writer exertion of “First, the public sector has repeatedly showed itself incapable of policymaking, implementation, administration and accountability. As long as the primary sectors remain under the complete purview of the government, no significant improvement can take place. Secondly, the financial (and intellectual) situation of the government automatically prevents it from undertaking several key projects wholly and so the involvement of the private sector is essential. Thirdly, Pakistan severely lacks the involvement of non-official people in governmental functions.: is false and fake….the civil service has been doing what it can since establishment of Pakistan..it was the involvement of unofficial people that have played havoc with the people…..with meagreness resources and outstretched hands of government what else can you expect from it??????

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  • Usman
    Sep 19, 2012 - 3:27AM

    We need (many) mangos.

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