Oh, what a performance!

4 Sep 12
Colin Talbot

Targets, what targets? The proliferation of Departmental Business Plans shows that top-down government is alive and well under the coalition

My last book, Theories of performance, was published just as the government changed hands in 2010. It was all about how we measure performance and use that information in the public services.

This might have been bad timing on my part. After three decades of the growth of ‘government by numbers’ under prime ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, it looked like the David Cameron government was set on reversing all that. It seemed it was committed to ditching what it dubbed New Labour’s ‘target culture’. But I shouldn’t have worried too much.

The coalition government did indeed scrap Public Service Agreements, which under Labour had become the pinnacle of a performance system that had grown to embrace every single public service in the UK. But PSAs were already almost dead. In their last version in 2007 the number had been reduced from 145 to 30 very high-level, whole-of-government and fairly vague pledges. In fact, Alistair Darling told me recently that when he was chancellor he wanted to get rid of them but Brown blocked him. The result was the fairly feeble and meaningless pledges in the 2007 PSAs.

At the top of government, attention had switched away from PSAs to the new Departmental Strategic Objectives. Although the number of PSAs might have fallen to 30 ‘cross-cutting’ ones, most of those abolished were actually about single departments and were replaced with DSOs. So although the names changed, the overall picture didn’t alter that much.

Something rather similar has happened under the coalition. They might have abolished PSAs and DSOs, but instead have promulgated a new set of Departmental Business Plans in 2011 and 2012.

Departments have been publishing plans since the early 1990s but the new ones contain a host of targets in various forms: milestones for delivering X policy or Y organisational change; efficiency targets for output, service and outcomes; and so on. Where there were just under a hundred DSOs across departments in 2010, now there are almost 400 measures in the 2012 DBPs (down from more than 500 in 2011).

National Audit Office officials have told me that they believe the government is collecting as much, if not more, data than the previous regime.

At the front line of service provision, the picture is mixed, with central government reducing the requirements on local services to provide data and increasing measurement in other areas such as A&E performance in the NHS.

But the UK public sector as a whole remains one of the most performance-measured and reported on in the world and the coalition has done little to reduce this.

Such performance data – especially about ‘efficiencies’ – remains highly controversial. Governments have a way of making definitions slippery, moving goal posts and spinning information. They find this harder to do with financial data about public services for the simple reason that we have generally accepted standards about financial reporting, which are independently established and audited.

With three decades of measuring and reporting on all types of public sector performance – inputs, processes, efficiencies, outputs, outcomes, value for money, and so on – it shouldn’t be impossible to come up with similar standards for reporting public performance information.

Of course there will still be grey areas and ‘wriggle-room’ for politicians, but we could substantially reduce the scope for obfuscation and spin through accepted standards. The coalition shows that performance reporting isn’t going to go away any time soon. So we should try to make it the best that it can be.

Colin Talbot is professor of public policy and management at the University of Manchester Business School. His ‘white paper’ on Standards for public performance reporting is available on his Whitehall Watch website. This article first appeared in Public Finance's September issue

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