Public Accounts Committee: Single Departmental Plans "not improving transparency"

Written by Matt Foster on 23 November 2016 in News

"Brexit will be a true test of whether SDPs are fit for purpose", says the Public Accounts Committee

A much-heralded plan to give taxpayers more insight into the way government spends its money has been criticised by MPs for failing to improve transparency.

Single Departmental Plans were launched earlier this year, with ministers promising that the online documents would "enable the public to see how government is delivering on its commitments".

But a new report by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee says the plans do not give the public enough information to track whether public spending commitments are being met.

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"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," PAC says.

The MPs point out that while the SDPs were intended to provide the public with information about the money allocated to delivering on manifesto promises, seven out of seventeen departments "do not publicly assign any budgets to their objectives".

"They are also supposed to 'enable the public to see how government is delivering on its commitments', but there are significant areas within some objectives where no indicators to measure progress are published," the committee says.

Committee chair Meg Hillier said that "even basic information" – including the recent creation of three new government departments – had not been included in the transparency documents, a situation which she warned did "nothing to instil confidence in what should be dynamic documents setting out a clear picture of the shifting priorities, objectives and spending of government".

“This becomes still more important in turbulent times and Brexit will be a true test of whether SDPs are fit for purpose," Hillier added.

"Some progress"

The report comes ahead of chancellor Philip Hammond's first major test as chancellor, with today's Autumn Statement due to shed light on the Treasury's latest spending plans – an area the committee says still needs work.

PAC's report says that government "has made some progress in the way it plans and manages its business" in recent years, and it praises the Treasury for increasing early engagement with departments ahead of last year's government-wide Spending Review "to get their input into the process and to better understand their models and forecasts".

But it says "much more work is needed" before the government as a whole can guarantee long-term value for money 

"HM Treasury’s Financial Management Review in 2013 planned various initiatives for costing and understanding the value of service delivery, but these were not ready for the 2015 Spending Review, and are still under development now," the committee points out.

PAC also says there is "significant variation" in the quality of planning across individual government departments, and says that without a "concerted and co-ordinated" effort the situation will not improve.

"Neither the Treasury nor the Cabinet Office, when challenged, could provide a single example of where a department had dropped or changed a commitment as a result of the supposedly improved planning processes and overview provided by SDPs: suggesting that prioritisation remains a real challenge for government," the MPs add.

During PAC's inquiry, Treasury permanent secretary Tom Scholar said the Single Departmental Plans – which comprise a limited, public-facing version and a more detailed document held internally by departments – were "only in their first year".

"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.

Scholar said Brexit was "obviously a very major new event that needs to be incorporated" into the SDPs, which he promised would be updated annually.

Reacting to the findings, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "We thank PAC for their report on the important task of managing government spending and performance. We will look closely at the recommendations made and will provide a full response shortly."

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

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