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Outcome delivery plans can help ministers track the impact of public spending decisions

The government’s performance framework has been neglected but will prove a valuable tool for managing public spending decisions.

The government’s performance framework has been neglected but will prove a valuable tool for managing public spending decisions, says Rhys Clyne

Before Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-budget, we published a report arguing that she should side-step a mistake frequently made by new governments of dismantling their predecessor’s performance framework and starting afresh, costing time and focus.

Less than two months later and another new government, led by Rishi Sunak, has inherited a markedly different political and economic reality. As his ministers prepare for yet another fiscal event, they would be wise to heed the same advice.

The performance framework should be refreshed to track the impact of looming spending decisions

Another recent IfG report, produced with CIPFA, Performance Tracker 2022 found there is “no meaningful ‘fat’ to trim” from public services, and that spending cuts are “almost certain to have a further negative impact” on performance. If Sunak and his chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, do choose to plug the fiscal black hole with cuts, they should be clear and honest about what public services will have to stop doing, and the risks that will create.

The performance framework will help government track the impact of spending decisions on public service performance and spot – and mitigate against – risks wherever possible. Built around a set of ‘priority outcomes’, most recently agreed at the 2021 spending review, and annual ‘outcome delivery plans’ (ODPs) for each department, the framework is the means by which ministers and officials can make trade-offs, agree priorities, monitor implementation, evaluate impact and change track where required. All of this will be vital given the difficult situation the UK economy finds itself in.

Any headline cuts announced in the upcoming autumn statement are likely to be followed by weeks of more detailed negotiations over the precise extent and allocation of those cuts. Departments should use this opportunity to refresh their then outdated priority outcomes. These should form the basis of reporting between departments and the centre, and reflected in updated – and fully published – ODPs.

The framework can help ministers deliver their priorities

Ministers should see the ODP framework as more than a tool for damage limitation. It can be a useful ally in their effort to achieve their objectives in the little time left before the next election.

By agreeing ODPs and organising departments around their implementation, ministers can translate political priorities into workable plans. When the prime minister wants to hold his cabinet to account, and when ministers want to hold officials to account, it is to the ODP framework they should turn. It provides a single view of performance across government, driven by shared data and regular reporting. And by analysing performance against targets, trajectories and wider plans departments can evaluate the impact of their work and adjust their approach.

The Johnson administration made several improvements to the way the performance framework works. The requirement for objectives to be measured in terms of real-world impact helps to avoid a narrow focus on bureaucracy. Its joint ownership by Treasury and Cabinet Office helps to view financial management alongside wider performance. And the inclusion of evaluation plans has the potential to make government more efficient by learning from what is and is not working.

The system can still be improved

That is not to say the ODP framework is perfect – far from it. ODPs should do more to recognise the complexity of policy problems, to avoid centralising ‘command and control’ approaches. Departments should include more detailed resource breakdowns of staff and budgets. Outcomes should be measured by a combination of input, output and outcome metrics to demonstrate impact in the short, medium and long term. And more detailed evaluation plans should be incorporated to ensure departments are learning from what works.

Greater input from the frontline, outside experts and citizens during development would make ODPs more robust. The centre should set standards for how cross-cutting work is to be co-ordinated between departments. Joint management by the Cabinet Office and Treasury should be safeguarded. The system should be better resourced.

The framework should be more transparent. The more detailed, internal-only ODPs should be published along with quarterly dashboards detailing departmental performance. The Johnson government required departments to report on a list of the prime minister’s ‘top 35’ priorities, the very existence of which was not publicly acknowledged; any equivalent lists should be published. This is justified on the grounds of the sound management of public money – but it would also make the framework more valuable to government, by opening it up to outside input and scrutiny.

Ministers will get the most from the framework if they, including the new prime minister, embrace it and use it in their day-to-day leadership. In the 2000s Tony Blair oversaw the reduction in NHS waiting times, again a top priority, by establishing a delivery unit, public service agreements and regular stocktake meetings with ministers and officials. Replicating that success means ministers knowing they will be held accountable for their outcomes by the prime minister, and officials understanding that they, in turn, will be held accountable by ministers.

Earlier in the year there were questions about whether the performance framework would continue to exist. The prospect of cuts and a looming general election means now is not the time for ministers to tear it up and start again. ODPs will prove a useful tool to the new government in difficult times, if ministers appreciate their potential.

Sunak government
Public figures
Rishi Sunak Liz Truss
Institute for Government

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