Beefed-up Single Departmental Plans coming in April, as Cabinet Office vows more transparency

Treasury and Cabinet Office vow to better align much-criticised SDPs with Brexit planning and Whitehall's ongoing £3.5bn efficiency review. But they reject calls to bring the public documents in line with the more detailed internal versions

By Matt Foster

09 Mar 2017

The second wave of the government's Single Departmental Plans will be launched in April, the Cabinet Office has confirmed, as it responded to a wave of criticism over a lack of hard data in the much-trumpeted transparency documents.

SDPs were first floated by civil service chief executive John Manzoni in 2015 as a way of improving the way Whitehall allocates resources to departments, tying manifesto commitments to settlements agreed with the Treasury at the 2015 Spending Review.

After a series of delays, SDPs were launched last year with a promise that they would bring together spending totals and policy commitments into "a single, clear road map for the first time" and "form a new framework to monitor and hold departments to account".

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But they were given a frosty reception by some Whitehall-watchers, with the Institute for Government branding them "little more than a laundry list of nice-to-haves" and the chief of the FDA union for senior civil servants dismissing them as "visionary twaddle".

In their own assessment of the SDPs, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee said last November that the plans had failed to improve transparency because they lacked definite performance indicators or spending information.

"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 said.

In a just-published response to the PAC's report, however, the Cabinet Office and Treasury reaffirm their commitment to SDPs, saying the exercise has "established a consistent framework for medium-term business planning to link what a department will deliver and how a department will deliver it, within the multi-year Spending Review settlement".

But the response also sheds light on a series of tweaks to SDPs that will be included in the second iteration, and for the first time puts an April 2017 date on their publication.

The refreshed SDPs will, according to the response, be accompanied by a separate release aiming to detail the government's "planning and performance process", with the refreshed documents themselves set to include "improved links to the performance information" behind them.

It also makes clear that SDPs are being tied to Whitehall's ongoing £3.5bn efficiency review, which has asked departments to make further cuts of up to 6% to their 2019/20 spending plans.

And the Treasury and Cabinet Office respond to a specific complaint raised by the PAC – namely that no Single Departmental Plan, originally billed as live documents, makes mention of how Britain's departure from the European Union will impact Whitehall's workload.

At present, none of the new Brexit-focused departments – the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade – have a published SDP.

But the response says: "All government departments have been requested to refresh and update their SDP for April 2017.

"The request has been aligned with the Efficiency Review and preparations to leave the European Union to encourage departments to make assessments on reprioritisation as part of their planning process and to take account of changes in priorities."

It adds: "Departments are encouraged to use their SDPs as the framework for ongoing business planning; and tracking progress and performance. SDPs provide regular reporting to the Cabinet Office and the Treasury to monitor progress and inform discussions on delivery and public spending control."

"Pulling together various strands"

Elsewhere, the response reveals that the Cabinet Office and Treasury are setting up a new "planning and performance peer group" of government departments, tied to the Treasury's wider Financial Management Reform programme.

That programme was launched by the Treasury in 2013, and aims to professionalise Whitehall’s finance function and encourage the use of better management information.

"These are pulling together various strands: the need to enhance the SDPs; the development of the finance function; and the need to address emerging public service pressures" – Julian McCrae, IfG

The response says: "The Treasury and Cabinet Office will agree, with government departments, the priority activities needed to establish a consistent high standard and deliver continuous improvement to this planning and performance management approach."

The changes outlined in the Treasury response have already been welcomed as "positive" by Julian McCrae, deputy director of the IfG, the think tank whose recent joint report with CIPFA urged the government to improve the way it tracks public service performance and allocates resources.

McCrae told CSW: "These are pulling together various strands: the need to enhance the SDPs; the development of the finance function; and the need to address emerging public service pressures."

Despite the tweaks promised by the Cabinet Office and Treasury, their response does reject one of the PAC's key recommendations – namely, that the more limited public versions of SDPs should include a similar level of detail as the internal documents used by departments.

A series of FOI requests lodged last year by CSW in an attempt to view the internal versions were rejected by departments, and the Cabinet Office and Treasury say in their response that they must "balance the need for a clear, transparent and comprehensive view of the performance of vital public services with the need for ministers and accounting officers to monitor government performance and manage their own affairs".

But they say the "further improvements can be made" on the transparency front and pledge to "promote greater access to information in the refreshed, published Single Departmental Plans (SDPs) by including a schedule of supporting statistics and their frequency".

"Headline indicators will be updated at least twice a year, or more regularly, when new data becomes available," the response adds.

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