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‘Deeper cultural change’ needed to reform departmental plans

Public services are suffering because the government lacks a coherent framework to support new plans, the National Audit Office (NAO) has said.

In two major new reports, published today, the NAO said that the 2015 Spending Review and single departmental plans are not making progress in holding departments to account.

It said it was particularly important that government departments improve their oversight in order to cope with the challenges of the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Sir Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said: “Time and again, we find that problems in the delivery of public services can be traced back to the way government goes about planning and managing business in pursuit of an administration’s policy objectives.

“Instead of an enduring framework that supports coherent strategic planning, effective business management and accountability, the current approach amounts to a collection of top-down, set-piece processes and guidance that fail to make the most of the understanding and expertise across government.

“We welcome the process improvements in the most recent Spending Review, and the signs of improvement in individual departments’ business planning, but government must make a deeper cultural change if it is to make a lasting difference to its performance, and narrow the gap in accountability and transparency. This is all the more important as a new administration, with redefined and urgent objectives, seeks to hit the ground running."

The NAO said that the Treasury has made some improvements to the Spending Review process following previous critical reports from the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee.

However, it said that the plans are still providing weak incentives for departments to deliver value for money.

The Treasury has also not addressed problems with Spending Review structure that make it harder to deal with issues that span departmental boundaries. Only two joint formal bids between departments were submitted in 2015, the same number as in 2010, despite efforts to encourage them.

It also said that the Spending Review only focused on funding decisions until 2020, increasing the demand on the capacity of the Treasury and departments and excluding long-term projects such as devolution and the roads strategy.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, said: “Spending reviews have increasingly being used for short term, Treasury-driven goals, imposing arbitrary and unrealistic cuts targets that have damaged public services.

“The new government should abandon this approach in favour of working more closely with civil servants and unions to establish what resources are needed and where.”

The report into single departmental plans found that although departments said they were “a step in the right direction” towards improving accountability, they still failed to provide the level of accountability that was promised.

For example, only 10 out of 17 departments linked their objectives to detailed spending plans, and a large amount of content was excluded from the version that was made available to the public.

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