Single Departmental Plans: implementing the Government’s promises?

26 February 2016
The Government wants to implement a vast policy programme, but last week’s publication of the Government’s Single Departmental Plans (SDPs) suggests it no longer believes that transparency about priorities and progress will help achieve its mission. Julian McCrae argues that, while this is disappointing, some good may still come out of the SDP process.

Last week we did some analysis of the publication of the Single Departmental Plans (SDPs). The plans failed to give a clear sense of the Government’s priorities, and in many instances were so vague that it will be impossible to tell whether the objectives have been achieved or not. They read more like a rehash of a manifesto than a clear plan to deliver the Government’s promises. It is difficult to see anybody – certainly not government departments or the centre of Whitehall – using these published documents to drive performance.

The UK used to be a leader in the use of transparent performance frameworks, setting out government priorities and showing progress towards achieving them. The Public Service Agreements (PSAs), introduced almost as an afterthought in 1998, were widely emulated. For example, in New Zealand they have a Better Public Services framework, while US states like Maryland have taken the public use of data to new levels. Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, also spoke at the Institute for Government last week about Scotland’s National Outcomes framework.

In 2010, the Coalition Government introduced Business Plans (with a different philosophical underpinning to PSAs, but still based on a firm belief in the power of transparency). Last week’s published SDPs mark an end to this phase in UK government. Ministers obviously no longer see the value of being transparent about their priorities and progress. This is a mistake – public accountability is a good in itself, but also provides a way to focus activity in the complex organisational environment of a modern state.

But the Government’s abandonment of transparency does not necessarily mean that Whitehall has abandoned planning and performance management. There have been a number of positive developments stemming from the centrally driven process of developing the SDPs.

  • The debate about the respective role of the centre of Whitehall and departments has matured. It used to be about the relative strengths of the two, presenting this as some zero-sum game in which there are inevitably winners and losers. Now there is a much clearer recognition that this is about capability – how does the centre help develop the whole of Whitehall’s capability to deliver major projects, to access greater commercial skills and hopefully to develop its HR capacity. This has been encapsulated in the “functional leadership” agenda.
  • This is related to another fundamental shift. Some of the Civil Service leadership are recognising that their responsibility is not to champion the often poor performance of the centre, but to support the implementation of the Government’s priorities in departments. Sometimes this may mean centralising activity, but often it will mean transferring skilled staff from the centre into more operational environments where they can make the most difference.
  • These changes have been helped by a close working relationship between Cabinet Office and Treasury, as the latter has taken responsibility for developing the finance function throughout Whitehall Given that the Treasury will inevitably bear the fiscal consequences if too many of Whitehall’s big change programmes fail to deliver, it seems certain that the Treasury’s new Permanent Secretary will continue to see this working relationship as vital.
  • Finally, some of the unhelpful distinctions between the policy formation and implementation phases are being broken down. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority has been moving its activity upstream, starting to scrutinise projects before they get underway. This new role will take some time to establish properly, but getting things right from the start is far more effective than having to get things back on track after the train has left the station.

Many of these developments are at a fragile stage. As our work on centrally-driven improvement initiatives shows, there is a depressing history of reforms that started well but then tailed off and failed to become embedded. Hopefully ministers understand this, and will back these developments.

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