Government business plans fail to live up to expectations

Two years after the government announced a radical and transparent new way of tracking performance through departmental Business Plans, the Institute for Government says they are of limited use and lack political backing. In an article on the Institute for Government website today, editor of the Whitehall Monitor and senior researcher Justine Stephen said:

“In our See-through Whitehall paper on the Business Plans last year, we suggested that there were three possible audiences for the plans:

  • the centre of government
  • departments
  • the public.

Twelve months later, the Business Plans still need substantial reform if they are to become useful to any of these groups.

“The plans have lost their link to the political side of the centre of government. It appears that neither the Prime Minister nor any of the ‘quad’ are seriously using them to track the progress of the reforms going on across government. They also aren’t designed to be used by the Head of the Civil Service Bob Kerslake or Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood to hold the Whitehall’s Permanent Secretaries to account. The Cabinet Office has got better at collecting and collating the information – but there doesn’t appear to be anyone at the centre actually ‘using’ the information.”

‘Whitehall Monitor’ tracks statistics on civil service staff numbers and departmental Business Plans, the latest edition, published by the Institute, gives a sombre assessment of the government’s attempt to have meaningful management information to track its own performance.

“The Non-Executives on departmental boards have been disappointed to find that the ‘Business Plans’ bear little resemblance to their private sector namesakes.” Justine Stephen comments.

“However, in some cases there has been a positive outcome – their existence has acted as a catalyst, pushing departments to consider what kind of information they would find useful in running themselves and to adapt their board reporting accordingly,” she adds.

Though Justine Stephen welcomes more recent improvements to the way the data presented, the information is still largely ignored by the public. This is because the business plans aren’t clearly linked to information about outcomes, she says.

“The problem is that, unlike the targets of the previous Public Sector Agreements (PSAs), most of the public don’t care about actions on work done within Whitehall – they care about the end results. Yet we still cannot navigate easily from the work done by Whitehall through to the end results in the way Oliver Letwin described when explaining the plans to the Public Administration Select Committee.

Whitehall Monitor #15 looks at looks at the progress made by departments since the Business Plans were refreshed in May 2012 , it says:
•    Departments have completed 84% of the actions due within this period. This breaks down into 65% completed on-time, 11% being completed early and 8% completed late. A further 16% are still overdue.
•    The Department for Education has missed the most actions in absolute terms for this period – but it has also completed the most actions.
•    The Department of Health remain bottom of our rankings for performance in percentage terms for a second year, whilst the Department for International Development jointly retains their top position. However,  the sample size of actions is smaller this year and there is considerable variation between the numbers of actions departments are carrying out in this period, so these rankings only provide a partial picture
•    Looking at the explanations provided by departments we can see that early slippages can have a knock on effect to the end reform deadlines. For example, the Department for Work and Pensions are anticipating that early delays will affect the end date of some of their Work Capability Assessment reforms.
•    A key test for the credibility of the Business Plans will be whether they really do reflect the reality of progress being made on the flagship reforms like the Universal Credit programme which has consistently been reported as on track.

The Whitehall Monitor has looked at the two departments with the most overdue actions – DfE and DWP - to examine the explanations provided by the departments for missing their deadlines.