When a new government is formed, or a reshuffle occurs, new secretaries of state usually arrive in their departments with plenty of ideas about what they want to do or achieve. But the departments they inherit do not start with a blank slate. Before they can get started on any new plans, ministers need to understand what their department is already doing, where existing pressures are and the possible impact of any changes of direction. Central to understanding a department is understanding its budget and ministers will want to get to grips with it, and how to work with officials to make changes to it, fast.
As such there are several key issues, covered in this short paper, that every new secretary of state coming into a department needs to understand, and key questions they will need to ask of their officials:
- What is the department spending money on and who is spending it?
- Where are there (unfunded) pressures in the current budget in terms of delivering current policies or services?
- What is the department’s flexibility to change the current budget?
- What are the consequences of any changes, how could these be made, and what are the mechanisms for doing so?
- How can ministers probe what is happening in the department?
- How will new decisions affect a future spending review?
- Who scrutinises the department’s spending?