The Institute for Government has called on departments to publish more details of their "secret spending plans" after civil service chief executive John Manzoni revealed that internal versions of single departmental plans provide more detail on funding allocations.
Appearing before the Public Accounts Committee last week with James Bowler, the Treasury’s director general of public spending, Manzoni said “there is a level of more detail” in the internal versions compared to those for public consumption “and it does give you the resources”.
SDPs were first published in 2016 and require departments to set out how they will implement their objectives to deliver services and track performance.
However, the government has faced criticism over the vagueness of the public versions of the SDPs, which are now in their third iteration, including that they do not link spending plans to priorities.
Manzoni told MPs that although the government had worked hard to make versions of the plans available to the public they were “not as good as they should be, but they are getting better each time”.
He added: " If you look at the internal versions, there is a level of more detail and it does give you the resources. That’s in the good ones; some of them don’t, but most of them do now give you the resources associated with the particular objectives. That is not necessarily down to all the sub-objectives, though in some cases they do.”
For example, he said the internal version of the SDP at the Department of Health and Social Care “would be clear what resources [it] has allocated” to public health issues such as obesity, sexual health or tackling alcohol abuse.
Manzoni defended the differing versions following questions from MPs, saying “I believe that if you do all your planning and discussions in public, it becomes a less fruitful exercise”.
He added: “It is not as though they are full of state secrets or anything, but some of them might be quite sensitive – they might project workforce losses, or quantification of things that perhaps we do not want in the public domain at that time because they will have an impact. That might be the case, but it also just changes the dynamic of a conversation if you have to do it in public.”
However, in a blog following Manzoni’s comments, IfG senior fellow Martin Wheatley and research intern Tom McGee called on the government to publish much more detail in order to boost transparency.
“The published versions do not show how departments allocate spending to their objectives, so it is impossible to judge what the department has achieved. Manzoni and Bowler claim the internal unpublished plans address this criticism,” they said. “But how can we know?
“The lack of transparency contradicts the government’s own stated aim. At the launch of the single departmental plans in 2016 Oliver Letwin, a driving force behind the plans, claimed they would ‘ ‘enable the public to see how government is delivering on its commitments’. This is not possible with the published plans. The public is unable to scrutinise how – and how well – its money is being spent by the government.”
Wheatley and McGee argued that "publishing the 'secret Single Departmental Plans' is a vital part of" improving scrutiny of spending and performance.
“Manzoni claimed that the published plans are ‘more digestible for the public’ than the internal versions. But if full plans really are too detailed to be usefully published, it should still be possible to publish versions with rich, informative content. While external SDPs have improved between 2016 and 2018, we remain unable to assess how the government is performing against its objectives,” they added.
“Manzoni also warned against publishing the internal plans because ‘if you do all your planning and discussions in public, it becomes a less fruitful exercise’. But engagement outside government can improve the quality of central government planning. Being open to feedback from parliamentarians, leaders in the wider public sector and business, and people with insight into the consumers of public services can only be helpful.”
Some plans, such as the Ministry of Defence’s, could be redacted before publication, they suggest, if that is necessary. Although they note that Manzoni himself said “it is not as though they are full of state secrets”.
“The government has said that the plans will be integral to next year’s spending review,” Wheatley and McGee said. “If that is the case, publication of real plans against which performance can actually be measured would demonstrate the government’s commitment to being open with parliament and the public.”