IfG: Government bid to track departmental performance 'let down by data problems'

New report by the Institute for Government think tank warns that 'huge variation in quality, usability and accessibility' of data is making it harder to measure departmental performance against Business Plans

By matt.foster

02 Apr 2015

Departments are not publishing enough transparency data to allow citizens to properly assess the progress made against their Business Plans, a new report has warned.

The coalition government introduced departmental Business Plans in 2010, as part of a move away from strict performance targets for public service outcomes favoured under Labour. At the time, David Cameron argued that Labour's 'Public Service Agreements' had led to "the whole of the public sector constantly answering to Whitehall", and vowed a new approach that would signal "a complete revolution in how government operates".

Business Plans instead offered a check-list of specific actions departments would take to deliver on key areas of policy, and were intended to go hand-in-hand with the publication of information on performance - so-called 'performance indicators' - so that citizens could hold government to account on what had and had not been delivered.

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But new research by the Institute for Government finds that while some departments have made good progress against their performance indicators, others have not provided enough data to allow citizens to draw meaningful conclusions.

'Huge variation'

The think tank analysed 207 of the performance indicators set out by departments to see how much progress they had made against their Business Plans. While most of the indicators looked at by the IfG did not have specific targets against which to measure performance, the researchers used the available data to identify which ones had moved in the direction intended by the departments.

They found that the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) had made progress on all of the indicators set out in its 2010 plan, including taking steps to improve its own energy efficiency, providing support with energy bill costs to vulnerable households, and rolling out a programme of smart meters.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) had also made progress on three-quarters of its indicators, although the researchers noted that DCMS had not made progress on a pledge to raise the proportion of children playing competitive sport.

However, the report found that seven government departments - the Department for Education, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Home Office, the Treasury, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence had made improvements in fewer than half of the areas set out in their Business Plans.

And it warned of a "huge variation in the quality, usability and accessibility" of the data made available by departments to measure performance, saying that the Number 10 Transparency website on which Business Plans were presented made it sometimes "difficult, if not impossible" to access the appropriate information. 

The Department for International Development, the Department for Education, the Home Office, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office also come in for criticism for failing to publish enough comparable data for the public to be able to form a clear picture of how they have performed against their Business Plans.

"The availability and accessibility of data makes it difficult for the public to use the indicators as intended," the authors say. "No army of armchair auditors appears to have enlisted. And the plans also appear to have lost any political link with the centre of government.

"Implementation matters; demonstrating implementation matters; and performance measurement, or performance management, can help keep that on track. But the impact indicators which form part of the government's performance measurement system are let down by problems with data, are not sufficiently well-explained to the public and do not appear to have been widely used by the public, departments themselves or by the centre of government."


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