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Mines a skinny CPA, by Colin Talbot

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02 December 2005

CPAs for Whitehall? Don't make me laugh, says Colin Talbot. Sir Gus O'Donnell's Departmental Capability Reviews for central government are far removed from the rigorous external performance assessments that councils are subjected to

Whitehall's spin doctors must have been giggling over their frappachinos. This was undoubtedly Sir Gus O'Donnell's first media coup since taking over as head of the Civil Service – and quite a coup it was. He managed to convince just about everyone that Whitehall was about to be subjected to a new inspection regime, of the sort visited upon the rest of the public sector for quite some time now.

The headline that predominated was 'CPA for Whitehall' – meaning that the rigorous and widely respected Comprehensive Performance Assessment for local government was now to be applied to the mandarins themselves.

To be fair, there is some improvement here. The usual pattern in the UK is for Whitehall to impose reforms on other parts of the public sector and then wait a reasonable time – say a decade or so – before applying them, cautiously and carefully and usually in a watered down form, to itself.

Local government began being subjected to 'compulsory competitive tendering' back in the early 1980s, but it was a full ten years later before its Whitehall equivalent, 'competing for quality' began operation. Just about everyone in the public sector was subjected to targets and performance indicators from the early 1990s onwards, but it wasn't until 1998 that Public Service Agreements emerged, which put targets on Whitehall departments. Now the supposed CPA for Whitehall begins only a few years after the real CPA was applied to local government.

So maybe the process is speeding up. Maybe one day we might even see Whitehall doing something to itself before everyone else.

The background of the emergence of Whitehall's Departmental Capability Reviews is interesting and illustrates the often confusing and usually confused way the 'centre' operates. Until quite recently, there were nine separate units in the Cabinet Office, Treasury and Number 10 that had some hand in performance and delivery policies for Whitehall departments.

In the Treasury there is a 'government financial management' team, which has overall responsibility for formulating spending and performance (PSA) policies. Then there are individual departmental spending teams, who negotiate PSA targets with 'their' departments. And finally there is the Office of Government Commerce, which is charged with implementing the Gershon efficiency drive in Whitehall departments.

In the Cabinet Office there was, until recently: the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit (although, confusingly, this is physically located in the Treasury); the Office of Public Services Reform; the Efficiency Review Team; the Strategy Unit; and the Performance Partnerships Unit.

And then, of course, there is the Policy Directorate (and its sub-units) in Number 10.

What comes out of this spaghetti junction of units and offices is hardly joined-up.

We currently have:

  • Strategic five-year plans for government departments, which were driven mainly by initiatives coming from the Strategy Unit and Number 10 before the last election
  • Public Service Agreements and Spending Plans (three years), which are driven by Treasury spending teams
  • 'Gershon' efficiency plans, driven by the OGC and the Treasury
  • Performance Partnership Agreements – agreements between the Cabinet secretary and permanent secretaries (or departments and the 'centre', meaning the Treasury, Cabinet Office and Number 10), depending on which document

The latter are the immediate origin of the DCRs. One senior official I talked to admitted that there was very little 'joined up' between these various systems for steering and assessing Whitehall's performance. But it was decided to do at least some joining up and marry the Performance Partnerships Unit and the PPAs with the work of the Delivery Unit. The resulting offspring is the new system so carefully spun as 'CPA for Whitehall'.

So are these CPAs? Well, hardly. Comprehensive Performance Assessments are carried out on local government by the Audit Commission, a statutory, non-departmental public body. Whatever one thinks of the CPA methodology, and it has its critics and has just been substantially revised, no-one doubts the impartiality and relative independence of the Audit Commission. Compare this with 'capability reviews'. Sir Gus O'Donnell claimed in a note to the public administration select committee that 'this will not be Whitehall inspecting itself'.

So who will be doing it? The Prime Minister's Delivery Unit will be establishing and directing the teams that carry out the reviews. True, they will include some external people and draw upon the Audit Commission for advice. But does anyone seriously believe a process organised and managed by something called the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit is really not Whitehall inspecting itself?

We have of course (as always in Whitehall) been here before. A few years back there was the equally celebrated 'peer review' process of government departments by people from other government departments. It, too, was touted as being rigorous and 'independent' and turned out to be neither.

There is also a slight clue in the names of the two processes: one is a comprehensive performance assessment, the other a capability review. Spot the difference? CPA does include an element of forward looking – the so-called 'direction of travel' assessment, but it is mainly about what has actually been achieved. Capability reviews are purely about capacity and assumed future achievement (or not). They say nothing about actual performance.

There has been a sorry history of government reporting on its actual performance. When the civil service 'next steps' agencies started up in the late 1980s, the government began publishing an annual review of their performance. In 1999, the review, despite being produced from the Cabinet Office, gave an excellent and reasonably objective account of agencies' successes and failures and was hailed by ministers as a model report. It never appeared again.

You might also recall the infamous government 'annual report'. This purported to give an account of how well the whole of government was doing. It was received with widespread disbelief and hilarity, as it published unaudited successes and quietly ignored failures. I once put it to Sir Richard (now Lord) Wilson – then head of the civil service – that the annual report was not credible. His response was that they had sorted that problem out – they weren't going to publish it any more.

So it comes as little surprise that the 'capability reviews' don't touch on actual performance – far too sensitive. What then might be the alternatives? What would a real CPA for Whitehall look like?

Well, first, it would have to address capability and actual performance. And the data used would have to carry real credibility, which would mean it would have to be independently audited. At the moment the National Audit Office can audit the systems by which performance data is produced, but not the data itself. That would have to change.

Secondly, for this not to be 'Whitehall inspecting itself', someone else would have to do it. The obvious candidate is the NAO and it is strange that the capability reviews will call for help from the Audit Commission but not from the NAO.

Thirdly, and this is really radical, should there not be a role for Parliament in all of this? It is, after all, the body charged with scrutinising the executive. An obvious possibility would be hearings of select committees around performance and capability reviews for each department prepared by the NAO. That would be a little more like the pressure that local government is subjected to through the CPA process.

But don't hold your breath.

Colin Talbot is professor of public policy and management at Manchester Business School

PFdec2005

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