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Whitehall business plans ‘of little use’

By Vivienne Russell | 20 November 2012

Whitehall business plans are of limited use and don’t have political backing, the Institute for Government has concluded.

In an analysis published on the institute’s website today, senior researcher Justine Stephen says the plans need ‘substantial reform’ if they are to be of any use to either the centre of government, departments themselves or the public.

The IfG has been monitoring the business plans since they were launched by Prime Minister David Cameron in November 2010 as a means of improving democratic accountability.

Today’s analysis found that departments had completed 84% of the actions required between May and October. The Department of Health remained bottom of the IfG’s rankings for the second year, missing 50% of its deadlines. The Department for International Development, Revenue & Customs and the Ministry of Defence completed all actions required of them.

The Department for Education remains the worst overall performer in absolute terms, missing ten of its deadlines (of which eight are still outstanding). However, it also stands out as having the greatest number of actions scheduled to be completed and the greater number completed on time.

Stephen says the plans are not being used to track the progress of reforms by any of the ‘quad’ – the core ministerial group of the prime minister, deputy prime minister, chancellor and chief secretary to the Treasury.

She adds: ‘They also aren’t designed to be used by the head of the civil service Bob Kerslake or Cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood to hold Whitehall’s permanent secretaries to account. The Cabinet Office has got better at collecting and collating the information – but there doesn’t appear to be anyone at the centre actually “using” the information.’

Stephen also reports that departments themselves are not using the business plans in a systematic fashion and the public largely ignores them as they fail to link clearly to information about outcomes.

‘The problem is that, unlike the targets of the previous Public Sector Agreements, most of the public don’t care about actions on work done within Whitehall – they care about the end results. Yet we still cannot navigate easily from the work done by Whitehall through to the end results that [Cabinet Office minister] Oliver Letwin [has] described.’

She calls on government to actively ‘use’ the business plan process. ‘If no one in government is using this information– they can hardly expect the public to do so,’ Stephen says.



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