Government has ‘no coherent framework’ for implementing policy

21 Jul 16

The government lacks a “coherent, enduring framework” for planning and managing policy implementation, according to the National Audit Office.

In two reports published today, the NAO assessed the means by which the government plans and manages its business through Single Department Plans, and the execution of the 2015 Spending Review. 

Almost £2tn was allocated to departments in last year’s Spending Review and another £2tn was budgeted for welfare and benefits payments over five years. This involved complex cooperation between the centre of government and departments to set overall strategy.

Despite improvements in this area, auditors found that the government was lacking an overall management framework. Adopting such a system would allow the government to plan into the medium term, set achievable goals, know whether it is on track, adjusting its approach where necessary, and provide Parliament with clear accountability.

The NAO refuted the government’s claims that it already operates such an arrangement in the form of processes and guidelines. The auditors said this did not add up to a framework, and said the outcome of this lack of structure could be seen in projects that were not value for money and blighted by an absence of long-term, joined-up thinking.

Making the change to a more effective system would not be easy, however, due to the scale of government and the significant challenges facing the country, which have been compounded by the recent vote to leave the EU.   

Some progress had been made following previous NAO and Public Accounts Committee probes, but improvements had not been as significant as expected. Although the government is working with departments more effectively, it is not making the most of in-house expertise. Also, the report noted that a heightened focus on the spending period up to 2020 had drawn attention away from longer-term funding decisions and their impact.  

NAO head Amyas Morse 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.”

He said the NAO welcomed the signs of improvement evidenced by the Spending Review 2015 and within individual departments’ business planning. But he called for “deeper cultural change” if the government is to make a lasting difference in performance and “narrow the gap in accountability and transparency”.

He concluded this was all the more important for the new government led by prime minister Theresa May, who he assumed would seek to hit the ground running.

In the second report on single departmental plans, the NAO found that many departments were using the SDP as a chance to improve their performance monitoring and planning.

SDPs cover formal reporting on key governmental priorities, cross-cutting goals which span more than one department, and the day-to-day running of departments.

It was recognised in the report that SDPs offer the opportunity to “embed a more robust, outcome-focused business planning approach,” which, if fully integrated with regular spending reviews could add weight to the broader cultural shift that the NAO felt was required.

However, the NAO claimed that the SDPs do not provide the degree of Parliamentary accountability that was promised, nor do they represent good practice in transparency.

Commenting on the NAO’s conclusions, Mark Serwotka, Public and Commercial Services union general secretary, said: “Spending reviews have increasingly been used for short-term, Treasury-driven goals, imposing arbitrary and unrealistic cuts targets that have damaged public services.”

He added: “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.”

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