Single Departmental Plans are dead, long live Outcome Delivery Plans. The Treasury and Cabinet Office set out more details about them in a letter to the Public Accounts Committee last week. Two previous attempts never really achieved take-off. Departmental Business Plans, according to the Institute for Government, were not taken seriously by the Cabinet Office and (especially) Treasury and “did not have the status or incentives to hold ministers or civil servants to account.” The National Audit Office was similarly unflattering about their successors, Single Departmental Plans. They found that “departments are weak at setting out their understanding of the relationship between inputs, outputs and outcomes.”
The new approach appears to learn lessons. The focus on just three or four outcomes in each department is a big step forward from what were in some cases several dozen ‘priorities’ and other goals in the SDPs. Recognising that fifteen of the priorities require serious collaboration between departments is also an improvement on the tendency of the SDPs not to look outside their departments. There is a strong emphasis on evidence and evaluation. Above all, the Treasury appears to be taking them seriously.
However, ahead of new Commission for Smart Government publications on finance and departmental boards next week, I suggest three aspects of departmental planning which require improvement if the new approach is to be successful.
First, as the NAO has said, analysis of inputs, outcomes and outcomes needs to be improved. Take one of the Home Office’s priority outcomes, concisely expressed as ‘reduce crime.’ The five stated metrics are: three different kinds of crime (among many) police numbers (an input, not an outcome measure), and hospital admissions of young people following stabbing. Hardly a clear definition of what success in reducing crime really means, let alone what the Home Office is going to do about it.
Second, plans must not be paper exercises feeding the central departments beast. They should be a real expression of departments’ plans for money and activity. In our boards report, we will argue that they should have a formal role, and accountability, for the robustness of departmental plans. Non-executives should provide internal scrutiny of the soundness of plans, suggest improvements, and produce a formal report to the permanent secretary and secretary of state on their findings, which would be shared with the Treasury and Cabinet Office and published.
Last, but not least, transparency and easy access. The SDPs were only published in summary form, and in html format. Challenged as to why MPs could not see a full plan, the former Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary John Manzoni slightly loftily told the PAC: “it is very thick, and it is not obvious to me what you would do when you got it.” In contrast, in Canada plans are published in full, with the content fully explorable in an interactive database. If the new plans are a success, government should take credit and publish them in full, and in a format which makes the content easy to explore.
However, improving planning department by department can only go so far. The government is the government, not a collection of 20 or so separate organisations. Planning across government can only be effective if ministers, above all the PM with the support of the chancellor, are clear about a short list of their real ‘must-dos’. Likely candidates for that list are not hard to see, notably recovery from the pandemic, ‘levelling up’, net zero, and Global Britain. But what would be really transformational would be if this year’s spending review, and departmental planning going forward, could be anchored in an explicit, and clearly defined statement of the government’s most important intentions for the remainder of this Parliament.