Government by Task Force: A Review of the Reviews
After only a year in power, New Labour has already set up more than 192 different policy reviews, task forces and advisory groups. At the time of writing, one or two new ones are still being announced each week. In this review of these reviews, details of the purpose and membership of these new bodies have been brought together for the first time (see table in Appendix).
This has not been easy since there is no central register of these reviews and no government agency has overall responsibility for monitoring them. The sheer volume of new reviews means that many are effectively unaccountable. Even parliamentary questions have so far only elicited an incomplete list. The mushrooming of task forces and review bodies is thus a new phenomenon which raises serious questions about the New Labour's style of government.
Although the government claims to have been innovative and democratic in its inclusion on task forces and advisory bodies of people from outside the usual circles of central government, in practice neither women, nor ethnic minorities, nor young people, nor organised labour are adequately represented. On the available figures, the best represented interest group is business and the private sector. In general, directors and managers of goods and services have a voice, whereas producers and consumers do not.
The government's apparent commitment to inclusiveness and pluralism has other limits too. The task forces and review bodies have been designed to foster support for its policies, rather than debate about them. Their main objective is to neutralise political opposition and to create a new national consensus around the central tenets of Blairism.
This ignores the fact that on some contentious issues consensus is simply not possible. Despite the government's rhetoric of involving the public in the working of government, the reality is that principles have been abandoned and debate repressed. The result is government by elite, which bypasses not only the general public but also parliament. New Labour's project is merely to widen the range of elites represented in government in order to deliver its policies more efficiently. Power remains strongly concentrated at the centre.