It Takes Two to QUANGO

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October 14, 2010; Source: The Guardian | In the U.K., there has long been debate about QUANGOs—quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations—one of the better acronyms in use in British government and civil society. In theory, a QUANGO is a nonprofit organization organized or chartered by government to deliver governmental functions (distinct from nonprofits that bid to receive governmental contracts or grants).

The quasi-autonomous aspect of a QUANGO is often that its board (or sometimes its executive director) is partially appointed by government and its budget is somewhat directly reliant on regular government appropriations. That might be what distinguishes QUANGOs from GONGOs—government-operated (or -organized) nongovernmental organizations—established by government to access private assistance such as charitable or foundation contributions.

One might say that the private foundations established by public universities in the U.S., largely for the purpose of private fundraising not overseen by state legislatures, are examples of GONGOs. Does the U.S. have QUANGOs like the estimated near 1,200 in the U.K. or the 800 in Ireland? The hybrid governmental/nonprofit organizations in the U.S. (sometimes called “independent agencies” or “government corporations”) include several at the federal level that are reasonably well known such as the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Export-Import Bank of the United States, the Inter-American Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the United States Institute of Peace, the National Labor Relations Board, the National Science Foundation, the Legal Services Corporation, and even the United States Postal Service, depending on how QUANGOs are defined in the U.S. context. States also have plenty of “independent agencies” as well.

In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron’s government is reexamining the purpose of scads of QUANGOs, reportedly planning to kill 177 of them and merging another 129. This Guardian article suggests that the government is going to reconstitute five immediately as charities, including the U.K.’s National Endowment of Science. The motivations might be several. In some cases, some QUANGOs may have outlived their original purposes. By shutting QUANGOs or moving them away from automatic government funding serves as a way of budget cutting and moving QUANGO employees (derogatively called “quangocrats” by some in Great Britain) out of government or civil service categories.

But there may be a non-financial motive. Some QUANGOs represent, in a way, the government institutionalization of public concern for a specific issue. Having a National Endowment for the Arts as a quasi-governmental agency makes the arts into a governmental concern. The same goes for Legal Services. While the conversion of QUANGO’s to charities keeps the entities alive, it denies them their guaranteed governmental funding through which they reliably delivered on their missions.

Removing QUANGOs may also be a way for political ideologues to de-legitimize certain topics as governmental concerns. If the November elections take a very conservative, limited government, Tea Party-ish turn, one might imagine some similar budget and non-budget challenges to America’s independent quasi-governmental agencies.—Rick Cohen