With politics so turbulent and politicians so distracted, the civil service deserves credit for even completing and publishing the fourth set of Single Departmental Plans since their invention in 2016. Beyond that, however, there is little for advocates of better and more transparent departmental planning to celebrate – and little response to our previous warnings that the plans frequently did not clearly define, in measurable and reliable terms, what achieving intentions would look like.
The 18 plans set out no fewer than 99 objectives. More staggeringly still, 283 sub-objectives and over a thousand actions are listed. Nearly half of individual departments have more than 15 priorities (defined as sub-objectives). And this lack of discipline over priorities has worsened over time: there were only 87 objectives in 2018.
There appears to be no rhyme or reason in how many objectives have been set for each department. The number of set objectives, sub-objectives and actions of the five largest spending departments (DWP, DHSC, DfE, MoD and MHCLG) range between 41 and 106. The Cabinet Office, with planned spending of less than £800m, has 34 objectives and sub-objectives – and that's ten more than the DWP, which has planned spending of nearly £200bn.
Despite the arguments of the Public Accounts Committee and the Institute, the published SDPs are still “edited highlights". The more detailed plans, drawn up by departments and scrutinised by the Treasury and Cabinet Office, are still secret. This suggests that there is no shift in the view that the full plans are not for lesser mortals, while the SDPs don’t include even basic information such as to how departments’ total budgets are allocated between objectives. It is unclear whether the continued resistance to full publication of the Government’s more detailed plans is being politically driven or comes from the civil service.
Online presentation and accessibility also remain poor. Search for “Single Departmental Plans” on gov.uk and you end up on a page with 126 results. The plans are not available as pdfs and they offer (at best) clunky links through to supporting information.
We have argued that Canada’s InfoBase sets a strong, but not unattainable, standard for making information of this kind public so that users can quickly find what they are looking for. Canada also publishes much more detailed plans.
In a political climate in which ministers are even less likely than usual to be clear about their priorities, it would be unrealistic to expect some of the criticisms of previous SDPs to be addressed. However, it is harder to excuse the civil service for the inconsistent presentation of the plans, the shortcomings in online accessibility, and the failure to link spending plans to priorities. Civil servants can only respond to political instability and uncertainty, but they can take the lead on improving aspects of content and presentation.
The latest round of SDPs are, however, a testament to the civil service’s ability to keep the wheels turning in turbulent times. That said, the portrayal of the Government’s priorities and intentions seem likely to be out of date before the ink has even dried.