Treasury gets departments to meet evaluation commitments without sanctions

All departments have now met 2021 Spending Review evaluation conditions, after some were given extended deadlines
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By Tevye Markson

05 Dec 2023

The Treasury has not needed to sanction departments to get them to fulfil evaluation requirements for the 2021 Spending Review, its permanent secretary has said.

James Bowler said departments have now fulfilled the core evaluation conditions demanded by the Evaluation Task Force after some were given deadline extensions, in a letter to parliament’s Public Accounts Committee.

This means the Treasury has not had to withhold funding, reduce departments' delegated authority spending limits, or refer departmental accounts to be qualified by the NAO, he said.

The Evaluation Taskforce Review set evaluation conditions for departments' 2021 spending settlements as part of plans to improve the quality of evaluation in government. These were:

  • By February 2022, provide the Evaluation Task Force with a plan to address evidence gaps across key policy areas ahead of the next spending review.
  • By June 2022, publish an evaluation strategy by which outlines a department-wide approach to identifying and prioritising areas for evaluation activity
  • By September 2022, provide ETF and the Treasury with an assessment of how much evidence they have to support the 20 highest cost policy areas/programmes, using the Nesta Standards of Evidence

As of March 2023, 12 out of 18 of departments had met all three conditions.

All departments have now met the demands, “in some cases with extensions to the deadlines”,  Bowler said in the letter to PAC chair Meg Hillier, which was sent on 30 November and published yesterday.

Bowler said the ETF, a joint Treasury-Cabinet Office team, had agreed reasonable extensions to the original deadlines with departments that were behind schedule, “in recognition that 2022 was an especially busy year and significant reprioritisations were necessary”.

He said the Treasury then reinforced the importance of meeting these deadlines through a letter from its second perm sec, Cat Little, to department perm secs, which he said also “crucially” thanked the departments that had already fulfilled their conditions.

In doing so, Bowler said the Treasury “has secured compliance from all departments through correspondence and collaboration, and has not found the need to take measures such as withholding funding, reducing delegated limits, or referring departmental accounts to be qualified by the NAO”.

He also said the ETF has found that having settlement conditions in place has been a useful mechanism to ensure that evaluation is given a high profile "more generally".

The Treasury perm sec said the ETF has, since its establishment in 2021, advised on evaluation designs for 305 programmes valued at £139bn, with its interventions enabling “robust evaluation plans, ensuring effectiveness and value for money”. He said the ETF’s advice on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund was a “notable example” of this.

Bowler said the ETF has also supported the expansion of cost-effective programmes, leading to a £200m increase in funding for the Supporting Families Programme after “robust” evaluation found the programme was estimated to deliver £1.51 of fiscal benefits for every £1 spent.

But he added: “This of course is not to say that our work on encouraging evaluation is done. Far from it. We will want to continue to work with departments and the committee to enhance evaluation, share best practice and press for continuous improvement.”

Earlier this year, the Evaluation Task Force commissioned a research firm to review the “significant lack of good quality evaluation” in place for government's biggest projects.

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