'Miles away from conveying the necessary radicalism': Priority outcomes one year on

Martin Wheatley asks: how seriously should we take the Treasury’s renewed interest in what public spending achieves?
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By Martin Wheatley

22 Nov 2021

It doesn’t seem so long ago that Treasury officials were telling me it was for departments, not them, to worry about whether money achieved its intentions. For much of the last decade, spending management was fixed on “how much” to the exclusion of “spending well”. I argued that the priority outcomes set by the Treasury in the 2020 Spending Review were a welcome sign of real change. Maybe they couldn’t bear any more lectures from the National Audit Office, the Institute for Government, and the Commission for Smart Government! 

Current live issues remind us that 24 hours, never mind a week, are a long time in politics. So the Treasury should be commended for sticking to its guns. The 2021 Spending Review again includes a set of priority outcomes for each department. They even made it into the chancellor’s speech, despite their technocratic character. The main spending review document proclaims, with the zeal of a convert, that “spending public money well requires a clear account of what the spending is trying to achieve, along with ongoing monitoring of whether it is working.” It has a fair amount to say about the priority outcomes, which are also (as in 2020) published in full with supporting metrics in a separate document. 

I argued that there were two risks around the 2020 priority outcomes. There was little sign of how the 60 or so outcomes fitted into a big picture for government as a whole to drive effective working across departments, or even whether there was one. In some cases, the outcomes also seemed incompletely and weakly defined.

On the first, the outcomes document now lists five “missions” which the prime minister has set the government: levelling up; net zero; education, skills and jobs; health; and crime and justice. But outcomes are still listed department by department without a clear link to the “missions” or how different departments contribute to them. References to levelling up have been added to six outcomes, but more with a sense of “must mention levelling up!” than with real clarity about what it means or how outcomes fit together. 

On the second, there has been some improvement: for example, the “reduce crime” outcome is supported by more measures, reflecting better its genuine complexity. But they are still limited to the Home Office sphere; reducing crime also requires effort by the justice system, health, education and housing. Elsewhere, there is – disappointingly – backsliding: six outcomes, including three belonging to the Cabinet Office itself, are supported by no measures, only a promise of “narrative reporting”.

The government still needs to work harder, then, on the relationship between targets and a bigger picture, and on definition. But setting the outcomes and metrics is the easy bit. The hard grind is maintaining focus and bringing about results. How can the government best do that?

“References to levelling up have been added, but more with a sense of ‘must mention levelling up!’ than real clarity about what it really means”

First, the government machine dances to the tune set by the PM and the chancellor, and they need to be in alignment. This is a key lesson from the 2000s, as IfG colleagues and I chronicled in our 2019 report on spending and performance. 

Second, the centre of government needs to back up that top level alignment. The Commission for Smart Government’s final report argued for a single Treasury board, bringing together elements of the Treasury and Cabinet Office. If the government isn’t inclined to such radicalism, it certainly needs to pay attention to the structures and personnel bridging the two central departments. Government must display a clear, unified message on the “missions” and drive remorselessly to make the priority outcomes happen. The government should ensure that Emily Lawson, who recently stepped back into her role leading the Covid vaccine programme after just a few months of being seconded to No.10, resumes her leadership of the Delivery Unit.

Third, the centre needs to drive radical change in people and systems. They are not where they need to be in the third decade of the 21st century, matched against corporate and international exemplars. The commission made radical proposals for complementing Whitehall insiders’ talents by drawing in people with professional experience in a range of disciplines and a wider diversity of personal experience. It showed how departmental boards could be overhauled to drive up performance and capability. It suggested changes to bring about true digitally enabled government. It argued that success on the levelling up and net-zero missions can only happen by radically empowering regional and local government. The Cabinet Office’s priority outcomes are miles away from conveying any sense of the necessary radicalism. 

Martin Wheatley is research director at the Commission for Smart Government

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