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'Russian doll' quangos soared throughout the noughties, research finds

GRAPH: How Ireland’s agencies have grown since the 1900s.

THE NUMBER OF quangos created in Ireland since the foundation of the Free State have been mapped by researchers – and guess which year the number of agencies ballooned beyond all anticipation?

That’s right – 2008.

The Irish State Administration Database (ISAD), developed by researchers in UCD, shows that quangos (quasi non-governmental organisations) were represented fairly modestly at the beginning of the Republic. The number dropped in the lead-up WWII and then climbed back up again slightly, remaining fairly steady until the 1970s.

The gradual climb in quangos in the 1980s, however, is nothing in comparison the out-and-out explosion of the 1990s, when the number of agencies rocketed.

Figure from ISAD: The number of new agencies created in each decade:

At the peak of the quango boom in 2008, the area of policy in which agencies were most heavily represented was education and training – followed closely by enterprise and economic development.

Figure from ISAD: The principal policy domains of agencies from 1958-2008

Dr Niamh Hardiman from the UCD School of Politics and International Relations headed the project. She explained that there were a variety of factors involved in the rapid expansion of agencies throughout Celtic Tiger Ireland:

The pressures included the need for compliance with EU directives, demands for greater stakeholder engagement in the policy process emanating in part from social partnership processes, the need to perform new tasks requiring new skills, and requirements of administrative efficiency.

However, she added:

As with the expansion in agency numbers, the contraction is equally ad hoc, with no clear rationale as to which agencies should be terminated, merged and absorbed into parent departments respectively.

The problem is not unique to Ireland, either. The UK had its own “bonfire of the quangos” last month, axing an abundance of agencies ranging from the Advisory Committee on the Government Art Collection to the Foreign Office’s Government Hospitality Advisory Committee on the Purchase of Wines – aka a wine tasting committee.

(Ironically, this wine-tasting committee did not actually cost the British government very much, as neither the members of the chairman were paid.)

Harrdiman said that, in many respects, the Irish experience of agencies could be viewed as ‘Russian doll’ style constructions, ”ranging from Ministerial and non-Ministerial departments at the core to independent inspectorates and self-regulatory bodies at the outer layer”.