13 May 2011

By laying out the changes to departmental business plans, the Government has reaffirmed its commitment to transparency. Whilst it is rightly lifting the lid on Whitehall, this means the Government is likely to be picked up on explanations that are less than convincing.

Published discretely alongside the refreshed departmental business plans was a dull but incredibly important annex (PDF, 431KB) that set out a line-by-line audit trail of changes to the original business plans. For each change the original action is listed alongside the new text and, crucially, an account of why the changes had been made.

While the publication of an audit trail may seem like a minor detail, having this account is a very positive step towards genuine public accountability.

Useful clarifications
Many of the changes provide useful clarification of vaguely worded actions pulled together in the initial rush to get the business plans published last year. Departments have now had the time to reflect and have taken the opportunity to set out their intentions more clearly.

One point of clarification has been very much in the public eye in recent weeks as the Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Cabinet members have gone head to head on the issue of immigration. Government policy on this has now been clearly set out in the changes to action 4.4 in the Home Office plan.

Previously this had read:

"Set an annual limit on the number of non-EU economic migrants admitted to the UK, reducing annual net migration to the tens of thousands"

The refreshed version now states:

"Set an annual limit on the number of non-EU economic migrants admitted to the UK. As a result of this and other policies we anticipate net migration will be in the tens of thousands in future"

A small wording change - but one which enables much greater clarity of intent and expectation.

Understandable explanations
Some of the changes to the Department of Work and Pensions' (DWP's) business plan are refreshingly honest, admitting that several ambitions are being scaled back. Rather than pursuing total end-to-end automation of all benefits (as it originally aimed in action 6.1.v) it has amended its goal to the automation of 75% of processes.

The positive element here is not whether you agree or not with the automation of benefits processing, but the fact that DWP have produced a clear and understandable explanation of why they have made the change. It is now for the public to judge whether they were right to do so.

Unfortunately not every explanation was as convincing. In refining 1.6.ii, the Cabinet Office went from an action of “Combine existing departmental academies” to “Publish a cross-government strategy document”. The explanation provided was:

"We have sought to clarify the language about the way in which we will carry out this action."

I admit, I’m not clear what 'departmental academies' are, but I am pretty sure that the switch from actively combining them to just publishing a strategy document isn’t just a clarification of the language!

Picking up the buck

Despite Oliver Letwin’s intent that the business plans only cover the actions that departments themselves have direct control over, there were inevitably cross-government policies with dependencies on multiple departments. Many of these actions ended up on the Cabinet Office’s business plan, and have subsequently triggered a rash of ‘overdue’ actions against their name.

So it is understandable that for actions like the recruitment of department lead non-executive directors (Cabinet Office 1.14.iii) they have tagged on “Responsibility of Departments” to the end and an explanation stating that the contribution of the Cabinet Office is now complete.

However, if Cabinet Office are passing the buck – the refreshed business plans should clearly show where it’s getting picked up. Why can't we see the addition of this action to each of the other departments’ business plans if it’s now on them to complete it?

Overall, the level of transparency that this refresh has shown is commendable and there appears to be a welcome appetite within government to improve the process further. Let’s hope that the additional scrutiny generated as a result will push departments to become better at accounting for changes, rather than trigger a retrenchment.


Cabinet Office first annual report on government major projects is over 6 months late. Ironic! Where is it?

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