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Single departmental ‘laundry lists’

Business plans published for every Whitehall department on Friday have already been harshly criticised for giving civil servants a hard time while blocking the public from holding the government to account.

The ‘single departmental plans’ were published last week after John Manzoni, Civil Service chief executive, argued they would provide a “single, clear roadmap” by bringing together efficiency, spending round and activity plans into one document per department.

“Crucially, since SDPs are completely aligned with the Spending Review, they will enable us to bring together inputs (especially funding) with outputs – thus making clear the trade-offs and choices. If we do them well, they will show the choices we must make to ensure we can deliver what we promise over the next period,” he said in a blog last year.

But these plans, published while the Commons was in recess, suffered a humiliating blow less than a day after they came out – with the Institute for Government’s deputy director, Julian McCrae, saying they are “little more than a laundry list of nice-to-haves, giving no sense of ministerial priorities”.

McCrae said it was possible to identify more than 60 separate priorities in Theresa May’s plan for the Home Office, and close to 100 in Patrick McLoughlin’s plan for the Department for Transport.

“Worse still, many of these individual priorities are little more than waffle, which is no use either to civil servants trying to implement the government’s agenda or to the public trying to hold them to account,” he said.

The Financial Times also had sources over the weekend saying the single plans (originally intended to build on concrete business plans to reflect government spending) were falling in the hands of ministers keen on including unclear manifesto commitments in their documents – such as “reduce immigration to the tens of thousands”.

Yet other Whitehall officials said they would show progress against real objectives rather than transforming goals into tick-box exercises.

As well as coming out during the peak of the EU summit in Brussels, the plans were also published on the afternoon of a Friday when the Commons was in recess – but Cabinet Office insiders insisted they were simply published as soon as they were completed.

(Top image c. Lauren Hurley, PA Images)


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