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In both Republic of Ireland and the UK, a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation (quango or qango) is an organisation to which a government has devolved power. In the United Kingdom this term covers different "arm's-length" government bodies, including "non-departmental public bodies", non-ministerial departments, and executive agencies.
The term "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation" was created in 1967 by the Carnegie Foundation's Alan Pifer in an essay on independence and accountability in public-funded bodies incorporated in the private sector. This term was shortened to "quango" by Anthony Barker, a British participant during a follow-up conference on the subject.
It describes an ostensibly non-governmental organisation performing governmental functions, often in receipt of funding or other support from government, while mainstream NGOs mostly get their donations or funds from the public and other organisations that support their cause. Numerous quangos were created from the 1980s onwards. Examples in the United Kingdom include those engaged in the regulation of various commercial and service sectors, such as the Water Services Regulation Authority.
An essential feature of a quango in the original definition was that it should not be a formal part of the state structure. The term was then extended to apply to a range of organisations, such as executive agencies providing (from 1988) health, education and other services. Particularly in the UK, this occurred in a polemical atmosphere in which it was alleged that proliferation of such bodies was undesirable and should be reversed (see below). This spawned the related acronym qualgo, a 'quasi-autonomous local government organisation'.
The less contentious term non-departmental public body (NDPB) is often employed to identify numerous organisations with devolved governmental responsibilities. The UK government's definition in 1997 of a non-departmental public body or quango was:
A body which has a role in the processes of national government, but is not a government department or part of one, and which accordingly operates to a greater or lesser extent at arm's length from Ministers.
The Cabinet Office 2009 report on non-departmental public bodies (official term for quango) found that there are 766 NDPBs sponsored by the UK government. The number has been falling: there were 790 in 2008 and 827 in 2007. The number of NDPBs has fallen by over 10% since 1997. Staffing and expenditure of NDPBs have increased. They employed 111,000 people in 2009 and spent £46.5 billion, of which £38.4 billion was directly funded by the Government.
Since the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was formed in May 2010, over 80 of such public bodies funded by government have been abolished under Conservative plans to reduce the size of the public sector, as a route to reducing the overall budget deficit. However, about a thousand still remain.
A recent document from the coalition government suggests that another 177 public bodies could also face abolition.
Republic of Ireland in 2006 had more than 800 quangos, 482 at national and 350 at local level, with a total of 5,784 individual appointees and a combined annual budget of €13 billion.
Depending upon one's point of view, the separation of a quango from government might be either to allow its specified functions to be more commercially exercised, independently of politics and changeable government priorities, and unencumbered by civil service practices and bureaucracy; or else to allow an elected minister to exercise patronage, and extend their influence beyond their term of office, while evading responsibility for the expenditure of public money and the exercise of legal powers. Quangos have also been criticised as inherently undemocratic, expensive and conducive to over-extending government.
The Times has accused quangos of bureaucratic waste and excess. In 2005, Dan Lewis, author of The Essential Guide to Quangos, for example, claimed that the UK had 529 quangos, many of which were useless and duplicated the work of others.
Quangos were mentioned in several episodes of the popular British sitcom Yes, Minister!, which, because it favoured Thatcherite politics (being written by a future Tory Peer Sir Antony Jay) satirised political life as part of an agenda to spread Public Choice Theory and its view of Civil Servants. In particular, the chairmanship of a quango played a central role in the episode "Jobs for the Boys" from the first series of the sitcom.
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