As the Parliament’s halfway point looms, Tim Fish and Ben Willis examine the Cabinet Office’s progress against the tasks it was set in May 2010 as part of the Coalition’s Programme for Government.
As deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s highly public apology over tuition fees vividly demonstrates, there’s a world of difference between manifesto pledges and government commitments. In normal times, the line of accountability between something promised in opposition and delivered in government is flexible: under the pressure of events, most governments ditch their less significant manifesto promises, and are judged on their ability to handle a changing world as much as their delivery of an agenda developed during an increasingly distant tenure on the opposition benches.
But these, of course, are not normal times – in the coalition’s Programme for Government (PfG), we have a very clear set of post-election pledges against which to judge the government’s performance. These promises weren’t made before a disappointing election delivered a narrow majority: they represent commitments made with the benefit of hindsight on the new government’s parliamentary strength, and were designed to enable each side of the coalition to hold the other to account against concessions made during those crucial days of negotiation in May 2010. The PfG then, provides a very clear baseline against which we can judge the government’s performance – and in the text below, we track the Cabinet Office’s progress against its commitments in a basket of key fields of policy (see Methodology box, left).
Scope and methodology
Given that it was thrown together in a few short days in May 2010, the coalition’s Programme for Government contains an awful lot of promises and ambitions: nearly 23 pages of them, in fact, under 31 headings. So when CSW decided to publish a Special Report examining the government’s progress to date in realising its aims, we had first to get the topic down to a manageable size.
Given that our core readership comprises senior civil servants from across government, our priority was to exclude the departmentally-focused policy promises and examine the elements of the programme that would affect officials in every department and arm’s-length body. These elements are most simply defined as the Cabinet Office’s responsibilities. So we identified the Cabinet Office’s remits, as presented on its website and in its business plan, and listed all pledges that clearly fell within them. We have excluded Cabinet Office commitments that do not appear within the agreement: we wanted to test the coalition against its own previous objectives, as formally set out in May 2010, rather than appraising it against the constantly moving target of evolving policy objectives.
Finally, we excluded all the pledges based around constitutional reform and the operation of government: Nick Clegg’s stuttering change programme would make for a fascinating story, but we wanted to keep the focus on reform of the civil service and the techniques and methodologies of governance. This left us with a list of 24 promises, which fell naturally into seven categories: civil service reform and reorganisation; transparency; procurement; the voluntary sector; diversity; the Olympics; and the strategic security and defence review. In each case, we have set out the main policy tools deployed in pursuit of these promises, and tried to assess progress to date.
Civil service reform and reorganisation
“We will reduce the number and cost of quangos”
By cutting back on arm’s-length public bodies, the coalition plans to save £2.6bn during the Parliament. In August, the Cabinet Office announced that it was more than halfway through its first wave of reform: 106 bodies have been axed so far, it said, saving £1.4bn. It made further progress towards its target of abolishing 206 bodies by merging 150 organisations into 70, and says it expects to see the number of public bodies fall by more than 300 by 2014-15.
However, the National Audit Office (NAO), in its January report on the topic, said that the department’s savings estimates are “imprecise”. The NAO was unable to identify whether some of the savings were generated by the quango closures or wider administrative cuts. The transition costs of removing these quangos are also unclear, and the NAO says they could total £890m – so the government might have to find nearly £3.5bn to make a net £2.6bn saving.
The government has clearly made rapid progress in reducing the number of public bodies. However, it has made little effort to assess the costs of its bonfire, both in direct transition costs, and in any additional burdens on other public services. Even when only embers remain, it will be hard to know whether the bonfire of the quangos burnt only junk, or something more valuable.
“We will reform the Civil Service Compensation Scheme to bring it into line with practice in the private sector”
Rapid progress was made soon after the election, with new rules on redundancy payments coming into force in December 2010. The cut to redundancy terms was an essential pre-requisite before departments could begin reducing staff numbers to meet the required cuts in administrative budgets.
A settlement had been agreed between the previous Labour government and most of the unions, but the PCS union never accepted it and won a judicial review immediately after the general election. This gave Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude the opportunity to push a less generous settlement through Parliament, giving him the leverage with which to renegotiate the settlement. A second judicial review, launched in 2011 by the PCS and Prison Officers Association, failed when Mr Justice McCombe concluded that the government was within its rights because alterations were in the public interest and left salary and pension schemes untouched.
According to Maude, the final package was designed to protect lower paid civil servants; limit payments to high earners; and offer an incentive to those taking voluntary redundancy. For those opting to leave voluntarily, payments can reach 21 months’ pay; but for compulsory redundancies the maximum is just 12 months. Payments for those earning less than £23,000 are calculated as if they earned that sum, and for high earners there’s a cap of £150,000.
The government has reduced the short-term costs of making large numbers of civil servants redundant; indeed, thanks to the PCS’s successful judicial review, Maude was able to push through a new and less generous settlement. However, civil servants still get a much better deal than most people in the private sector.
“We will improve the civil service, and make it easier to reward the best civil servants and remove the least effective”
In June the government published its Civil Service Reform Plan, which includes pledges to guarantee each civil servant five days a year of learning and development and to make the performance appraisal system tougher. From April 2013 the government wants to introduce a single, unified performance framework, linked to its nascent competence framework, for all civil servants below senior civil servant (SCS) level. In addition, it intends to run an SCS appraisal system that will identify the top 25 per cent and the bottom 10 per cent of performers, with measures to ensure those at the bottom are monitored more closely and given plans for improvement. Meanwhile, head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake has published guidelines clarifying the existing rules on performance management.
It is not obvious how the first element of this promise – to “improve the civil service” – will be achieved by a set of policies that include vast job cuts, a pay freeze making external recruitment more difficult, and a weakening of terms and conditions. On the narrower point of performance management, however, the government has been swimming with a tide of civil service opinion that appreciates the need to differentiate between good and poor performers. Its next challenge will be to enact its policies in ways that benefit the most effective civil servants as well as putting pressure on the weaker ones.
“We will undertake a fair pay review in the public sector to implement our proposed ‘20 times’ pay multiple”
The economist Will Hutton published his Fair Pay Review in March 2011 – concluding that the policy, which would have capped chief executive salaries at 20 times that of their poorest-paid worker, would be of limited value. It would be “unfair”, he said, because it would affect some organisations more than others; and anyway, if it was set at 20 times, it would affect “as few as 70 senior managers”.
Instead, Hutton has proposed that all public service organisations publish the ratio between the pay of their highest-paid worker, and their median pay, calling this the “most appropriate metric for pay dispersion”. He added: “Greater transparency, disclosure and explanation will…remove the need for simplistic benchmarks, such as the pay of the prime minister.” The government has yet to respond to the report, and seems unlikely to adopt Hutton’s recommendations.
“We will require anyone paid more than the prime minister in the centrally funded public sector to have their salary signed off by the Treasury”
All salaries above the current prime ministerial wage of £142,500 now have to be approved by the chief secretary to the Treasury. This has led to a fall in the number of people earning above £150,000, from 372 in 2010 to 291 in 2011 and 234 in 2012. Since March 2011, the Cabinet Office says, the total salaries of those still earning more than £150,000 have also fallen by 18 per cent, saving £8.7m.
So the policy is in force, and is saving money; but the benchmark is a somewhat arbitrary one. The PM’s full salary is, after all, £208,238 – but Gordon Brown declined to take his MP’s salary, and David Cameron has followed suit. Furthermore, there has been no public assessment of whether the policy is limiting organisations’ ability to recruit the right individual for top jobs. It goes down as a ‘tick’, but the policy’s intelligence remains unproven.
“We will extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency”
“We will ensure that all data published by public bodies is published in an open and standardised format, so that it can be used easily and with minimal cost by third parties”
These two pledges were fulfilled when the Protection of Freedoms Act (PFA) received royal assent in May this year. It set out amendments to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and will require public bodies to release datasets in a standardised and reusable format so they can be better exploited.
The original FOIA made no provision for the regular release of large datasets for public use, and May’s FOIA amendments will, according to Cabinet minister Francis Maude make data more readily useable by entrepreneurs, not-for-profits and others in “socially useful and commercially productive ways”.
Guidance on how public bodies should comply with the FOIA will now be amended to reflect the new legislative changes on open data, according to Steve Wood, head of policy delivery at the Information Commission. “Legislation is one part of the jigsaw. There is lot more needed to help public bodies understand the benefits of open data and what they need to do to make it happen,” he says. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the government has acted on this pledge, finding time in the legislative calendar to change the law as necessary.
“We will create a new ‘right to data’ so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public, and then published on a regular basis”
May’s PFA marked a major step towards the fulfilment of this pledge. In addition, in June the Cabinet Office published an Open Data white paper setting out how the government plans to introduce a “presumption to publish” data across the public sector. Key measures in the paper included a pledge to completely overhaul data.gov.uk to make it more user-friendly; and the establishment of the Open Data Institute (ODI), which will formally launch this month. The ODI’s aims include helping businesses to exploit government data. Alongside the white paper, every central government department published a 2012-2014 strategy outlining how it plans to implement the government’s open data objectives.
Meanwhile, four key data-rich trading funds – including the Met Office and Ordnance Survey – have been moved into a Public Data Group under the business department’s auspices. While the department will want to ensure that its new charges can still make a good living by selling their data, there are clearly opportunities to extend data releases.
Departments’ commitment to the white paper is bound to be variable, and the balance between paid-for and free data may not be quite what the government expected, but again the coalition has made good progress in this area.
“We will require public bodies to publish online the job titles of every member of staff and the salaries and expenses of senior officials paid more than the lowest salary permissible in Pay Band 1 of the Senior Civil Service pay scale, and organograms that include all positions in those bodies”
Since June last year, detailed organograms for central government departments, non-departmental bodies and other agencies have been published in full on individual organisations’ websites or through data.gov.uk, containing details of senior civil servants and their pay. Although the individual salaries of more junior staff are not published in full, the collective salaries of staff reporting to a particular line manager are published as an overall figure.
“We will require full, online disclosure of all central government spending and contracts over £25,000”
Since June 2010, the government has made available through data.gov.uk the Combined Online Information System, a database of UK government departmental expenditure. Since November 2010, details of all spending by departments and agencies over £25,000 have also been published through data.gov.uk and organisations’ own websites. Some bodies publish details of spending over £500 made with a Government Procurement Card, the so-called ‘government credit cards’ that have caused some controversy. Others, such as the communities department, publish details of spending over £250. All government procurement contracts valued at over £10,000 are now available on Business Link’s Contracts Finder website.
“We will open up Whitehall recruitment by publishing central government job vacancies online”
Since September last year, all civil service job vacancies across government have been published in one place: Civil Service Jobs. The new system is intended to help deployment across the civil service by notifying surplus staff of any available jobs that fit their profile.
“We will publish details of every UK project that receives over £25,000 of EU funds”
While the publication of spending data does include projects funded by the EU, it doesn’t distinguish EU-funded projects from UK-funded ones. A Cabinet Office spokesperson said that “work is currently under discussion with the Treasury.”
“We will support the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and enable these groups to have much greater involvement in the running of public services”
The Cabinet Office has launched an ‘investment readiness programme’ to support social ventures hoping to run local services. This comprises the £10m Social Incubator Fund, which will provide investment and other support to start-up ventures, and the Investment and Contract Readiness Fund, which will help established ventures looking to scale up their public service operations to find investors. The first eight organisations to benefit from this latter programme were announced in September, and will receive the first £1m of the three-year fund.
Last year the government also convened a ‘civil society red tape task force’ to examine the regulatory barriers “stifling” individual volunteering and charitable activity. This made 17 recommendations, and a report published in May noted good progress on all of the recommendations, although work is still ongoing to introduce the legislation required for some of the more extensive reforms of charitable legal structures recommended by the task force.
However, while the government has made progress in creating funds and tackling barriers to voluntary activity, many of the champions of greater third party delivery were disappointed by the government’s Open Public Services white paper – which, much delayed, finally emerged last year. Apparently gutted by Lib Dem ministers opposed to a new wave of outsourcing, it confined itself to restating existing policies and introducing a set of rather amorphous ambitions. A new update paper was published earlier this year, but it didn’t commit to further outsourcing and instead repeated the themes from the previous white paper.
“We will give public sector workers a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and bid to take over the services they deliver. This will empower millions of public sector workers to become their own boss and help them to deliver better services”
The Cabinet Office is supporting public servants who want to establish employee-led mutuals through a £10m support fund and Mutual Information Service website. It has also launched 21 ‘pathfinders’: fledgling mutuals from which the government says it hopes to understand more about how the mutualisation process works. In April, MyCSP became the first mutual to spin out of central government, taking on responsibility for administering the civil service pension scheme.
A June report by the independent Mutuals Taskforce, established last year, noted “significant” progress, with the number of public service mutuals growing from nine to 58 since 2010, and a further 40 in the pipeline. But it said that hurdles remain, including opposition from senior management. The government has yet to publish its full response to the taskforce’s recommendations, but has said it will do so. Unions have been hostile, and the Cabinet Office has clearly not been inundated with armies of eager mutualists. It is, though, pushing a set of pilots through to fruition – and, presumably, finding out whether its ambitions on this front are realistic.
“We will train a new generation of community organisers and support the creation of neighbourhood groups across the UK, especially in the most deprived areas”
In February last year, the Cabinet Office announced it had chosen the community development body Locality to run a training programme between now and 2015 for 500 senior community organisers and a further 4,500 volunteer organisers. The government hopes these trainees will take a lead role in delivering Big Society projects across the country. The network of organisers will be backed up by an £80m Community First fund, which will provide small grants to local social action projects. The Cabinet Office’s 2012 business plan commits the government to publishing a report in 2015 assessing the impact of the programme.
“We will take a range of measures to encourage charitable giving and philanthropy”
The centrepiece of the government’s efforts to fulfil this pledge has been the Giving white paper, published last May. It outlined proposals such as the introduction of charitable donations functions at cash machines and the funding of a national advisory service for aspiring philanthropists. A report published a year on from the white paper highlighted some progress, including the successful implementation of the cash machine giving policy: around 12,000 cash machines around the country now offer this facility, with more to follow later this year and into 2013. Other advances include the introduction of a £10m Innovation in Giving Fund, designed to support initiatives that facilitate easier giving; and the publication of a Small Charitable Donations Bill, designed to make Gift Aid claims on small donations easier, which is expected to come into effect next April.
“We’ve had a number of small-scale initiatives that have showed some promise, but I’m not sure how much further they take us in terms of the ambitious goals of changing the culture of philanthropy,” says Karl Wilding, head of policy at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Meanwhile, a much larger initiative threatened to undermine the government’s ambitions on charitable giving: the chancellor’s notorious 2012 budget set out a cap on the amount of Gift Aid tax relief that major donors could claim, limiting it to £50,000 or 25 per cent of income. This, as Wilding says, “upset a lot of people” – and after an outcry from charities, Osborne backed down.
“We will introduce National Citizen Service. The initial flagship project will provide a programme for 16-year olds to give them a chance to develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens, mix with people from different backgrounds, and start getting involved in their communities”
Last summer, 12 community organisations around the country were chosen to run the first round of National Citizen Service pilots; this summer, the second round of pilots was extended to 19 groups, reaching an estimated 30,000 16 and 17 year olds, the Cabinet Office says. With the two pilot rounds now complete, the government is offering 19 two-year contracts to private, voluntary and community sector bodies to run the initiative in England. Nine bodies have already won contracts. The lead bodies will work with up to 120 voluntary and community bodies in their areas to deliver the initiative locally. An independent interim evaluation of the initiative reported benefits to participants such as increased confidence and better leadership skills, but found no discernable impact on young people’s attitudes to volunteering.
“We will take a range of measures to encourage volunteering and involvement in social action, including launching a national day to celebrate and encourage social action, and make regular community service an element of civil service staff appraisals”
The government has pledged to give 30,000 days of civil service time to volunteering each year, with civil servants being asked to take at least one day of volunteering leave each year. In fact, a Cabinet Office spokesperson says that civil servants are providing between 50,000 and 80,000 volunteering days a year. The Cabinet Office will also be “encouraging” departments to include volunteering in staff appraisals, but couldn’t confirm whether some already do.
Other measures to boost volunteering include the Social Action Fund, which offers grants of £100,000-plus to projects in England aimed at encouraging people to give their time locally. Initially worth £20m over two years, the government has since expanded it by £40m over an additional three years. Forty projects, ranging from community food growing to local youth sports projects have already benefited from the fund.
“We will promote small business procurement, in particular by introducing an aspiration that 25 per cent of government contracts should be awarded to small and medium-sized businesses [SMEs] and by publishing government tenders in full online and free of charge”
In February 2011, a new online ‘contracts finder’ facility was launched, displaying every government contract worth more than £10,000. In addition, the government promised to abolish pre-qualification questionnaires (PQQs) for procurement below £100,000; set up an an anonymous complaints service against poor procurement practises, the ‘Mystery Shopper Service’; and create an SME Panel providing a contact route to the minister for the Cabinet Office. Representation for SMEs was given a further boost inside Whitehall by the appointment of Stephen Allott as a dedicated crown representative.
In March this year, the Cabinet Office published a ‘one year on’ report to assess the results of these measures, claiming that the proportion of government spending going to SMEs has risen from 6.5 per cent in 2009-10 to 13.7 per cent in 2011-12. Total spending with SMEs is set to double in a year, it said, from £3bn in 2010-11 to more than £6bn in 2011-12, and 15 of the 17 departments of state have abolished PQQs for most smaller contracts. However, questions have been raised over these figures. One procurement expert says that departments’ data was “flaky, and some of the departments worse than flaky”: changes in the way spending information is collected and calculated, he says, account for the rise.
Meanwhile, Maude has announced a new set of measures to encourage procurement from SMEs. He wants large private companies to publish their subcontracting opportunities; ICT contracts to be broken down into smaller jobs and shorter timescales; SMEs to be paid more promptly; departments to name SME champions, and be measured in a star ratings system; the Mystery Shopper scheme to be extended to cover supply chain issues; and to pilot a scheme helping SMEs to form consortia to win government business.
If government’s success is measured by its number of ideas and initiatives, it’s doing brilliantly; but that’s a very New Labour measure of effectiveness. Unfortunately, SME and procurement experts are not convinced by the hard numbers that government has produced – and there are certainly plenty of dynamics likely to squeeze SME spending, from procurement chief Bill Crothers’ hard-nosed focus on prices, to tightening budgets and the aggregation of supplier contracts in many departments. On this topic, a definite conclusion will have to await the publication of figures more widely accepted as providing a true picture of government spending.
“We will take steps to open up government procurement and reduce costs; and we will publish government ICT contracts online”
“We will create a level playing field for open-source software and will enable large ICT projects to be split into smaller components”
In March 2011 the government published its ICT Strategy, promising to open up government procurement, create a level playing field for open source software, and split ICT contracts into smaller components. This was followed in November by a strategic implementation plan, setting out how these ambitions would be achieved.
The strategy emphasises the shift from big, monolithic IT schemes to the use of an ‘Agile’ development methodology, under which systems are built and tested incrementally. The Cabinet Office’s spending control regime on IT projects – which gave Maude the power to veto schemes over £1m – has put some serious leverage behind this policy.
Meanwhile, the CIO Council, made up of CIOs from across government, has established a number of advisory groups and forums which will, the Cabinet Office says, “facilitate the technical and cultural change needed to increase the use of open source across government”. The government is also publishing a toolkit for procurers on best practice in evaluating open source options.
The government has also been working to channel all its purchases of generic goods and services – such as paper and power – through a set of buying hubs, reducing price variations and achieving economies of scale. Relationships with major suppliers have been transformed by the appointment of crown representatives to lead cross-departmental interactions with big businesses, and the lead crown rep – Bill Crothers – was recently put in charge of the Government Procurement Service.
The government says it has saved £1.24bn through renegotiating existing contracts, and cut its procurement spending from £51bn in 2009-10 to £44.5bn in 2011-12. Much of this saving has been achieved thanks to spending controls, rather than procurement reform, however. Meanwhile, civil servants’ approach to IT projects has been dramatically changed. In this area, at least, the government seems to be on track to achieve its ambitions.
“We will promote improved community relations and opportunities for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, including by providing internships for under-represented minorities in every Whitehall department and funding a targeted national enterprise mentoring scheme for BAME people who want to start a business”
The government’s 2011 social mobility strategy set out plans for a new Whitehall Internship Programme as a replacement for informal internships, deemed to favour those with existing contacts within the civil service. Part of this programme includes a two-month summer diversity internship scheme, which gives young people specifically from under-represented ethnic or social groups a taster of the Fast Stream. This summer saw the completion of the second of these programmes, in which 120 students took part.
The Cabinet Office was unable to say whether there is a targeted national enterprise mentoring scheme for BAME people who want to start a business.
“We will work with the mayor of London to ensure a safe and successful Olympic and Paralympic Games in London in 2012, and urgently form plans to deliver a genuine and lasting legacy”
The government delivered a safe and successful Olympic Games, although there were last minute wobbles when the security contract with G4S fell through and the armed forces were called in to guard the venues.
The focus is now on securing the legacy, which has been defined by the culture department in a 2010 report as: encouraging young people to take up sports and physical recreation; exploiting opportunities for economic growth; promoting community engagement; and ensuring the Olympic Park can be developed after the games as a driver for regeneration.
Games organiser Lord Coe was appointed as the Olympics legacy ambassador by David Cameron in August this year to advise the prime minister on all aspects of the legacy, including how to achieve the hoped-for £13bn of economic benefit from the Olympics. Coe will run the Olympic Legacy Unit, which is to be set up in the Cabinet Office.
On 18 September, the DCMS announced a 10-point plan to deliver the sporting legacy. The department will provide £125m of funding annually to UK Sport to continue supporting Olympic sports and athletes until the next Games in Rio in 2016 and, through its Social Action Fund, the Cabinet Office has provided £2m to the Join In Trust, a charity that will promote volunteering in sports at a local level.
Meanwhile, the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority will also build a legacy of best-practice by gathering together all of the information on the delivery of the Olympics and using it to inform other projects.
The government is keen to ensure that there is a lasting legacy from the Games, and has put in place a plan, created oversight bodies and provided ring-fenced funding to support a long-term goal that will extend beyond this Parliament.
“We have commenced a Strategic Defence and Security Review, commissioned and overseen by the National Security Council, with strong Treasury involvement. We will also develop and publish a new National Security Strategy”
The coalition worked rapidly to meet its national security objectives, releasing both its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and a National Security Strategy (NSS) in 2010. Implementation of these plans is led by a new National Security Council (NSC) and a national security adviser.
However, there were concerns raised in Parliament about the tight timescale the government was working to. The Commons’ Defence Committee warned in 2010 that: “The rapidity with which the SDSR process is being undertaken is quite startling. A process which was not tried and tested is being expected to deliver radical outcomes within a highly concentrated time-frame. We conclude that mistakes will be made and some of them may be serious.”
Indeed, some of the outcomes of the SDSR appear positively perverse. The UK is building an aircraft carrier, only to leave it in dock. The government reversed Labour’s selection of a jump-jet to provide the carrier’s air power, only to perform an expensive U-turn little over a year later. And we’re selling the US our Harrier jump-jets, while buying a new generation of jump-jets from them.
Speaking to CSW, the new permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, Jon Thompson, said the SDSR “was done in a fairly aggressive timetable” and the next review, due in 2015 would take longer to devise. “People who’ve been here [at the MoD] for a lot longer than I have would say that an SDSR probably takes about 12 months,” he said. Work is already being done to prepare for the next SDSR, and Thompson is keen that lessons are learned.
Across all of the areas we have surveyed, government progress is proving to be mixed. Their half-term report card might read: good, could do better. But although the report card provides an attractive metaphor, we haven’t given the Cabinet Office specific grades for performance in its various responsibilities; that’s a job for you, the reader.