Accounting for performance

Departments and their leadership should have a clear sense of their priorities, against which they can manage their resources and measure their performance. They don’t.

With the new challenge of Brexit, and pressures building up in public services, it is more important than ever that government manages its performance effectively. Sadly, both the Single Departmental Plans (SDPs) and the most recent crop of Permanent Secretary Objectives (PSOs) mark a step backwards. The published SDPs are little more than a laundry list of nice-to-haves, while the PSOs have returned to their previous form: Christmas trees on which all sorts of tasks and asks are being hung, rather than a targeted set of achievable priorities.

The Government needs a way of measuring its performance...

Cross-government performance initiatives since 1979

Like any large organisation, government needs to:

  • know what it wants to achieve (its priorities)
  • make sure that it has the resources to achieve those priorities
  • identify a set of indicators to tell it whether it is going to achieve its priorities.

Additionally, government is accountable to Parliament – and to the public – for its decisions and use of taxpayers’ money. It is therefore important that it clearly communicates its priorities, and its plans for achieving them. Parliament and the public should be able to judge whether or not government is going about its business in a sensible way, and they need the right information to do so.

The UK used to be a leader in the use of transparent performance frameworks, setting out government priorities and showing progress towards achieving them. The Public Service Agreements (PSAs), introduced almost as an afterthought in 1998, were widely emulated.[1]

Total and completed actions in Structural Reform Plans

In 2010, the Coalition government introduced Structural Reform Plans (SRPs). These had a different philosophical underpinning to PSAs, but were still based on a firm belief in the power of transparency, and had impact indicators to measure performance. Although they suffered from inconsistency, ran out of steam in the second half of the parliament, and some data was inaccessible or not updated, they were a promising step forward for government transparency and accountability to the public.[2]

The published Single Departmental Plans (SDPs) mark the end of this phase in UK government.

…but the Single Departmental Plans are a step backwards and give us little indication of the Government’s priorities.

Priorities identified in Single Departmental Plans

In February 2016, the Government published the first iteration of SDPs. These were originally billed as a ‘single, clear roadmap’, outlining ‘the choices [departments] must make to ensure [they] can deliver what [they] promise’. Looking at them, we should be able to tell what each department’s priorities are, and how it is going to achieve them.[3]

We can’t. The SDPs read more like a rehash of a manifesto than a clear plan to deliver the Government’s promises. Despite the best efforts of civil servants, there has been little attempt at political prioritisation – more than half of departments have more than 50 priorities. Patrick McLoughlin, then at DfT, had close to 100; Theresa May, then at HO, had more than 60. It is difficult to see anybody – certainly not government departments or the centre of Whitehall – using these published documents to drive performance.

It will also be difficult for Parliament and the public to use them. We counted 939 priorities in the original SDPs, some of them so vague that it will be impossible to tell whether or not they have been achieved. How will we know if the Foreign Office has successfully ‘[stood] up to Russian aggression whilst engaging and working with Russia where necessary’?

Only 10 out of the 17 original SDPs – including the now-abolished DECC – had been updated between Brexit and the end of 2016, mostly with data for their indicators. None has been reshaped to address its fundamental weaknesses. There are currently no published plans for the new departments of BEIS, DExEU and DIT.

It may be that the internal versions of SDPs offer a much clearer sense of what government is actually doing. But ministers obviously no longer see the value of being transparent about their priorities and progress. This is a mistake – public accountability is desirable in itself, but also provides a way to focus activity in the complex organisational environment of a modern state. As the Public Accounts Committee argued in a report in November 2016: “The SDPs do not enable taxpayers or Parliament to understand government’s plans and how it is performing, and therefore have not enhanced their ability to hold government to account for its spending.”[4]

The average number of Permanent Secretary Objectives rose from nine to 14 between 2014-15 and 2015-16.

Number of Permanent Secretary Objectives and measures against which they are judged

Last year, the number of objectives for each permanent secretary varied between seven and 20, with an average of 14. This is up from the previous year’s more sensible average of nine, which implied some prioritisation. The number of measures against those objectives has spiralled even further: an average of 39 in 2015-16, up from 15 in 2014-15, a ludicrously high number that suggests that a multitude of tasks and issues are being lumped into each supposedly single ‘objective’.[5]

This is a disappointing decline in quality. In 2013-14, a review by Mark Lowcock, Permanent Secretary at DfID, introduced a more sensible approach, reversing the tendency towards too many objectives and not enough measures. Unfortunately, the 2015-16 objectives do not continue this trend, and instead revert to the meaningless.

Departments are inconsistent in how they format and organise their objectives. They confuse measures, milestones and means of reaching them. The inconsistency across departments and the sheer number of objectives raise doubts about how useful and usable they are – and, crucially, whether they are actually being used to measure performance (one of the FCO’s objectives was to raise engagement scores to ‘x%’).

It has been suggested that, in future, PSOs may be aligned with the SDPs. But until the SDPs that are in the public domain are of higher quality, this risks worsening the objectives further.