20 December 2018

The Government admits it works to secret spending plans, rather than the published Single Departmental Plans. Martin Wheatley and Tom McGee argue that we need to see proper plans, not empty spin.

When questioned recently by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee about the planning and management of public spending, Cabinet Office and Treasury officials John Manzoni and James Bowler faced a particularly fierce examination over Single Departmental Plans. These plans are published by every government department and set out objectives, resources and performance.

The consequences of government planning extend far beyond the civil service, affecting the delivery of public services throughout the UK. Planning documents should explain how the government is spending public money and delivering on its promises. Unfortunately, the Single Departmental Plans fail to do this.

There are two versions of each Single Departmental Plan

There are two versions of each Single Departmental Plan: the version that is published, and the version that the department actually works to.

The published versions do not show how departments allocate spending to their objectives, so it is impossible to judge what the department has achieved. Manzoni and Bowler claim the internal unpublished plans address this criticism. But how can we know?

The lack of transparency contradicts the Government’s own stated aim. At the launch of the Single Departmental Plans in 2016 Oliver Letwin, a driving force behind the plans, claimed they “will enable the public to see how government is delivering on its commitments.” This is not possible with the published plans. The public is unable to scrutinise how – and how well – its money is being spent by the Government.

MPs who are responsible for examining public spending rely on these same documents and face the same problems. One member of the Public Accounts Committee, Anne Marie Morris, commented that “I can’t see the plan, so I can’t see whether we are getting value for money for the taxpayer.”

Being open to feedback can only be helpful for government

In our report The 2019 Spending Review: how to run it well, we urged the Government to publish more information about spending and performance to allow for proper scrutiny. Publishing the 'secret Single Departmental Plans' is a vital part of this.

Manzoni claimed that the published plans are “more digestible for the public” than the internal versions. But if full plans really are too detailed to be usefully published, it should still be possible to publish versions with rich, informative content. While external SDPs have improved between 2016 and 2018, we remain unable to assess how the Government is performing against its objectives.

Manzoni also warned against publishing the internal plans because “if you do all your planning and discussions in public, it becomes a less fruitful exercise.” But engagement outside government can improve the quality of central government planning. Being open to feedback from Parliamentarians, leaders in the wider public sector and business, and people with insight into the consumers of public services can only be helpful.

We are not calling for the Government to disclose sensitive information that would put the country at risk. Certain sections of certain internal Single Departmental Plans, such as the Ministry of Defence’s, could be redacted before publication. But redaction of the Single Departmental Plans should be the exception, not the norm. Manzoni himself said: “it is not as though they are full of state secrets.”

The Government has said that the plans will be integral to next year’s spending review. If that is the case, publication of real plans against which performance can actually be measured would demonstrate the Government’s commitment to being open with Parliament and the public. It would also show how government departments use resources – and that they are willing to learn from external scrutiny and challenge.

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