Government unveils long-awaited "Single Departmental Plans" in drive to match resources with priorities

Ministers say new, single documents bringing together spending totals and broad reform plans will "enable the public to see how government is delivering"

By Civil Service World

19 Feb 2016

Government departments have published their heavily-trailed Single Departmental Plans, the new documents designed to match up spending settlements with a single set of priorities for the next four years. 

SDPs were announced last year by civil service chief executive John Manzoni, in a bid to offer a "single, clear roadmap" for departments to follow. 

They mark an attempt by the centre of government to sharpen long-term planning, and tie up specific manifesto commitments with wider plans for organisational reform in the face of the fresh spending cuts facing many departments in the wake of November's government-wide Spending Review. 

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The plans were published on the GOV.UK website on Friday afternoon, and list each department's over-riding "vision", alongside their key policy objectives for the parliament, and the broad areas of organisational reform they will focus on as they seek to reduce day-to-day spending. 

Each document is headlined with the current year's resource spending total – known as the Departmental Expenditure Limit – and the policy objectives are accompanied by a mixture of performance measures and targets based on open data sources. Key themes that recur across the SDPs include a focus on downsizing the government's estate, including by sharing space with other departments; making better use of digital; and focusing on back-office efficiencies. 

The plan published by the Department for Work and Pensions, for example, says DWP will focus on building "a smaller and more skilled workforce and building our technology and commercial capability". 

Meanwhile, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills reiterates its commitment to lowering headcount and reducing its estate from 80 sites to "seven or eight" centres "plus a regional footprint", as well as promising to cut its number of partner agencies by "more than half". 

The Cabinet Office, the central government department with responsibility for the wider civil service, uses its SDP to say it will "push ahead with reform of the civil service to make it more dynamic and streamlined" over the next four years, and promises to make recruitment to the civil service "more open" by "actively" looking for "exceptional talent, especially in areas where capabilities are in short supply".

The Cabinet Office plan also provides a rolling total of the departments that have so far rolled out name blind recruitment practices, part of a push to increase diversity in the civil service. It also lists the most up-to-date diversity statistics across Whitehall. 

Many departments also say they will adopt cross-government digital platforms such as GOV.UK Verify, Pay and Notify "wherever this demonstrates the best value money solution for government". 

Publication of the plans has slipped since they were first announced last summer. The Spending Review document said they would be published "in December 2015", while Manzoni told MPs late last year that they would be published in January. 

CSW understands that the delays reflect some debate in Whitehall over the level of detail that the public documents should go in to, without undermining their use as an internal planning tool. Manzoni said last year that departments would publish SDPs at a "high level" in the first instance.

"Valuable and vital"

Launching the plans, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin said they would "enable the public to see how government is delivering on its commitments". 

He added: "All 17 plans have been agreed between departments and the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury, which will allow the government to drive more effective implementation of its programmes and policies, track on-the-ground impact, and get the best results for the British public." 

Fellow minister Matt Hancock meanwhile described them as a "valuable and vital tool for the Cabinet Office to use and providing challenge, support and expertise to each department, ensuring we are delivering an effective and efficiently run government". 

"We will hold departments to account to ensure we are delivering the promises we have made to the public, providing better services and delivering value for money for all," he said.

The push to draw up SDPs does not mark not the first time the centre of government has tried to provide a detailed breakdown of what departments are aiming to do and how they're performing over the course of a parliament.

The coalition launched annual "Department Business plans" in 2010. They were published on the Number 10 website and included data on financial management, structural reform and policy priorities, with ministers promising that they would help citizens hold government to account on what had and had not been delivered.

A report by the Institute for Government think tank, published last year, said that the plans had, however, suffered from a "huge variation in quality, usability and accessibility" and had "lost any political link with the centre of government".

UPDATE, 19/2: The IfG has since given its reaction to what it has called the "disappointing" new plans – full story here

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