Brexit focus pledged for "improved and refreshed" Single Departmental Plans

Written by Matt Foster on 18 October 2016 in News

Civil service chief John Manzoni (pictured) and Treasury perm sec Tom Scholar say annual updates to the much-criticised Single Departmental Plans will address "big elephant" of Britain's exit from the EU

A Brexit-focused second round of the government's Single Departmental Plans will be drawn up for next year, senior officials from the Cabinet Office and Treasury have confirmed, as they defended Whitehall's latest way of tracking departmental performance.

SDPs were first announced by civil service chief executive John Manzoni ahead of last year's government-wide Spending Review, in response to long-standing concerns about the way the civil service allocates resources and measures outcomes over the long-term.

The government has said the SDPs – which include a limited public version and a more detailed internal document – bring together spending totals and policy commitments into "a single, clear road map for the first time" and "form a new framework to monitor and hold departments to account".

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But they received a mixed reaction when they were finally unveiled, with the Institute for Government think tank branding them "little more than a laundry list of nice-to-haves" and the FDA union – representing senior officials – saying they failed to show how scarce resources would be matched to government promises.

At present none of the plans – intended to be "live" documents – have been updated to take into account Britain's vote to leave the European Union, a decision with major implications for both the government's policy agenda and spending plans. The Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade have yet to publish an SDP.

Appearing before MPs on the Public Accounts Committee this week alongside Treasury permanent secretary Tom Scholar and other key officials from the centre of government, Manzoni  acknowledged that Brexit was a "big elephant" still to be incorporated into the plans.

"We will have to have that conversation in due course," he said.

Scholar said Brexit was "obviously a very major new event that needs to be incorporated" into the annual update of the SDPs.

"For some departments it will mean a rather big change in their plan — Defra comes to mind as the obvious one — and for other departments it will mean a much less significant change, but every department needs to go through that exercise," he said.

Scholar also confirmed that both his department and the new Department for Exiting the European are currently running "two bits of central exercise" to check that departments are thinking through the implications of Britain's departure from the European Union.

And James Quinalt, the executive director of the Cabinet Office's Implementation Group, stressed that the SDPs had played a crucial role in helping the civil service respond to the Brexit vote,

"Just to give a couple of examples from this sphere of how the plans are being used for real – the analysis of what each department has on, and how that might be affected by Brexit, took as its starting point the single departmental plans," he told the committee.

"Now, as the high command of the civil service decides whether capability is in the right places to do this – from a skills and a people point of view – it is using the plans to inform its judgments about that. So here is one place where they are genuinely being used for real planning right now."

"You can’t be forever planning" – civil service CEO John Manzoni

"Real planning"

A recent report by the National Audit Office spending watchdog said the government had put "a lot of effort into developing SDPs" and had learnt lessons from similar initatives – including new Labour's Public Service Agreements and the Coalition's business plans – that had since fallen by the wayside.

But the NAO revealed that the SDPs had not been fully integrated with the Spending Review process with only 10 out of 17 departments linking their objectives to detailed spending plans. The watchdog also said the published version of the plans had failed to provide "all the public accountability the government said they would".

Although a new government-wide Spending Review is not expected until at least 2017, Manzoni said there was a "conversation ongoing" about trying to make the SDP process "much more aligned" with budget decisions – but he cautioned against constant revision of the plans in response to events.

"This is always a trade-off in any large organisation that is trying to run itself," he said. "You can’t be forever planning [...] We have a three to five-year spending round and an annual cycle of plans, which sets up a reasonable cadence of structured process. 

"We hope that, having taken that first step and having got the plans into a reasonable state and published, it should be easier for us to improve and refresh them" – Treasury perm sec Tom Scholar

"Of course, when something big comes along we will have to have another look at it, but one should not be dogmatic about it."

Scholar, the Treasury perm sec, said the SDPs were "only in their first year" and stressed that they would become the "primary tool" used by the Treasury to track departmental performance and make allocations on funding in future years.

"We hope that, having taken that first step and having got the plans into a reasonable state and published, it should be easier for us to improve and refresh them," he added.

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Matt Foster
About the author

Matt Foster is CSW's deputy editor. He tweets as @CSWDepEd

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