DIPs – worthy successors to Capability Reviews?
Action 16 in the Civil Service Reform Plan heralded the end of Capability Reviews and introduced Departmental Improvement Plans (or DIPs) as their successor. The reform plan committed to two departments piloting DIPs before they are rolled out across the board in 2014. Just ahead of the ‘one year on’ review of progress, not two but four prototype DIPs were published and the action was rated ‘green’ in the review. With DCLG, HMRC, FCO and DfID all producing their own DIP, this provides a diverse initial sample to allow an assessment of how they stack up.
Capability Reviews, initiated in 2005, were a major breakthrough in opening up the Civil Service to transparent assessment and challenge. The reviews provided an external assessment (in the first two rounds) of the capability of each department based on a common framework and a standardised five point scale from ‘serious concerns’ to ‘strong’.
DIPs are intended to be different in two ways.
First, they give departments much greater ownership over the process – the assessment and actions are internally driven; they are tailored to each department’s context; and the plan is owned by the departmental board rather than the Cabinet Office.
Second, they broaden the scope beyond capability by including additional measures of performance, efficiency, innovation, strategic risk and leadership of change.
We suggested two challenges for DIPs when they were announced:
• What (and who) are they really for?
• Will they become an integral part of departmental planning processes?
The first challenge raises the question of how departments will balance transparency with greater ownership over the process. The risk is that departments under-promise in order to over-deliver. It is impossible to say definitively whether or not this has materialised in the four pilots. Many of the actions for improvement are stretching and have clear metrics attached to measure progress. For example, DCLG has set itself a goal of matching or exceeding the highest increase for leadership and management capability as measured in the Civil Service People Survey. Having non-executive directors closely involved has the potential to be an important bulwark, providing a source of challenge without undermining ownership.
However, the difficulty is that, without any external review against comparable measures of performance or capability across departments, there is no way of being sure how robust DIPs are. Increasing departmental ownership is important but Whitehall operates in a world where transparency means publicly available plans will inevitably be used to judge departments and their leaders.
It is already clear that departments have taken quite different approaches to the ‘assessment’ section of the pilot DIPs in particular. While DCLG is not lacking for improvement actions (with 20, compared to 11 for FCO and 12 for DfID), there is not a single substantive area of concern raised in their assessment section. HMRC, by contrast, point candidly to a number of deep seated issues and include admissions such as “we made mistakes… and are ready to listen and take action”.
The risk with the second challenge is that DIPs simply add to an already cluttered set of processes required of departments that are completed because they have to be, not because they really help departments to become more capable. The direct link back to the departmental boards (emphasised strongly in all the forewords), the tailoring to departmental context and the inclusion of clear actions and metrics against which to be judged are all positive.
The key test, however, is whether or not boards use DIPs as a vital piece of management information to focus their attention and – building on the lessons from Capability Reviews – ensuring there is adequate external or peer challenge in the process.
Departmental business plans have so far failed on this score and, with the announcement of rolling efficiency reviews for departments to add to the mix, boards will also have no shortage of demands on them for extra reporting lines. For DIPs to become more than just another externally imposed requirement, they will need to support departmental boards directly and command credibility.