Single Departmental Plans not intended to give public the full picture, says government's lead non-exec

Sir Ian Cheshire says government will publish only “top level” metrics on progress against published Single Departmental Plans – which are themselves summaries of more detailed plans held internally

By Suzannah.Brecknell

24 May 2016

Government’s lead non-executive director, Sir Ian Cheshire, has rejected the suggestion that Single Departmental Plans (SDPs) are “puff”, but acknowledged that the published SDPs are summaries of more detailed plans which are held internally.

All departments published an SDP in February, outlining their key policy objectives for the parliament, and broad areas of organisational reform.

Launching the plans, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin said they would "enable the public to see how government is delivering on its commitments".  Institute for Government deputy director Julian McCrae, however, branded the plans “disappointing”, saying they were "little more than a laundry list of nice to haves".

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Cheshire, giving evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee today, said that the SDPs which have been published are summaries of “much, much more detailed” internal documents that ministers and departmental boards will use to monitor progress.

He told MPs there are no plans to publish detailed progress updates against the SDPs. Instead, “top level metrics” will be published.

“Not all the metrics are going to be published, just as I wouldn’t publish all the metrics of a PLC,” he said.

“Frankly it would have been overkill and realistically what you measure internally and control for, you don’t necessarily want to publish every single piece.”

He told MPs: “The top level metrics that will be published are certainly enough to allow people from outside to track [progress] and not the only bits of information that departments will carry on publishing.
“There should be enough transparency to assess externally how departments are doing.”

Amy Stirling, a non-executive director of the Cabinet Office, said it important that published information was appropriate for the audience. 

"You would expect an organisation to have multiple levels of management information, and be focusing on the right information for right audience,” she said.

Committee chair Bernard Jenkin later questioned the usefulness of the published SDPs, suggesting they are “puff” containing “an awful lot of commentary and not many numbers”.

Cheshire said that the detailed internal plans are “absolutely the way that the departments are going to be run and the boards are very involved with that".

This led Jenkin to suggest that the “intention of the summaries is [that the] public should not actually know how a department is going to be run".

Asked how select committees could play a role in monitoring departmental progress, Cheshire suggested that management accounts should be available to select committees on a quarterly basis, and SDPs should give a framework against which MPs could assess that information.

However he later said that he was not aware of any plans to publish quarterly progress updates against the SDPs.

Instead, Stirling explained, the department’s annual accounts would provide the basis for tracking performance against priorities set out in the SDPs.

Jenkin asked Cheshire to send a note to the committee explaining how parliament could measure departments performance against their SDPs on a quarterly basis: “What information should be available on a standard basis across departments to select committees… to form the basis of cross examination and scrutiny on a real time basis?”

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