Dave Penman: Single Departmental Plans are a let-down – but maybe that was the strategy all along

Written by Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union on 15 March 2016 in Opinion
Opinion

As a union we have always taken the view that governments have an electoral mandate and can determine their spending accordingly. But they need to demonstrate that they can and will provide the civil service with the resources necessary to deliver

And so after the long wait – the anticipation, expectation, trepidation and all the other  -ations – we finally got to see the Single Departmental Plans. And wasn’t it worth the wait? The government promised that the plans would set out clearly how their manifesto commitments would be delivered following the outcome of the Spending Review: a new era in transparency and accountability.

Well not since Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s second album Liverpool have I waited for something for so long and been so disappointed. Perhaps I exaggerate – Liverpool wasn’t that bad, Welcome to the Pleasuredome was always going to be difficult to follow – but Single Departmental Plans have universally underwhelmed the assembled geekery of government watchers.

After 30 years in or around the civil service I’ve had more than my fair share of disappointments and unfulfilled promises. Many have commented on the plans’ lack of detailed commitments and their failure to explain how they will be achieved. They have the look of what we have all seen many times before: mission statements, departmental objectives or whatever the latest fad is to describe vague corporate goals.


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But for me, one of the most critical elements of the plans is that they were supposed to be about demonstrating to the public, and civil servants, how policy commitments and resources will be matched. That’s because civil servants are expected to deliver ever more with ever less: some say it was ever thus. But this was on the back of what is not just any old spending round; it’s the culmination of a decade of austerity that will see many departments’ resources cut by anywhere between a third and a half.

As a union we have always taken the view that governments have an electoral mandate and can determine their spending accordingly. But, and it’s a big but, they need to demonstrate that they can and will provide the civil service with the resources necessary to deliver their commitments.

That’s what we were promised. When Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock spoke at the Institute for Government in October last year, outlining the government’s five-year plan for public service transformation, I took the opportunity to ask him specifically about this point: will the Single Departmental Plans demonstrate how the government will match commitments to resources? His response: “The intention is to tie up the question of resources and outcomes that we want to see.” He also added that “it can be done, but I’m not saying that it is easy”. It turns out he was right. It wasn’t easy, so they just ignored it all together.

"If government won’t set out clearly how it will manage its priorities at the beginning of a parliament, it certainly isn’t going to when it moves the goal posts at half time"

I’ll hold my hands up now and say that I haven’t read every page of the 17 departmental plans, along with the additional three from the territorial offices. Life is, after all, too short and there is only so much visionary twaddle that I can cope with. I have no doubt that we’ll now see Single Departmental Plan “one year on” reports and so forth, as regular as Rocky sequels and just as valuable in holding the government to account. It takes a lot for the cerebral wonks of the Institute for Government to describe many of the priorities as “little more than waffle”.

But in the end, that is what they are. David Walker in The Guardian summed it up nicely by saying that “political rhetoric is no basis for resource management”. And so, once again, an opportunity for the government of the day to demonstrate how it will deliver its promises has been lost.

The Spending Review took many observers of Whitehall by surprise. We had all been expecting an even tougher settlement than the previous parliament, which was certainly the tone that the chancellor and the Treasury had set in the two budgets of 2015. Instead it was about on a par with the 2010-15 round, cue a collective sigh of relief: it’s only another 20% cut.

But the storm clouds are brewing, and Brexit or not, there’s political and economic instability on the horizon, from the slowdown in China to the refugee crisis. If growth slows and revenues drop, as in the last parliament, our chancellor is fond of returning to those budgets and slicing a few more pieces of salami. Which department can’t deliver another 1% or 2% here and there?

And so, when this inevitably happens or new ministerial priorities are heaped on top of the current ones, how is government held to account? If it won’t set out clearly how it will manage its priorities at the beginning of a parliament, it certainly isn’t going to when it moves the goal posts at half time.

So the analogy with the Liverpool album holds true. In a few months no-one will be able to remember the track listing and soon nobody will even remember that it was released. But, unlike Liverpool, perhaps that was actually the objective in the first place. 

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Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union
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Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union

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