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.