Is Government Giving Value For Money?

Jason Lowther

When money is short, how we spend it becomes even more important. As central government reheats its arguments for austerity following the chaos of the last few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on the contents of the 2021 budget (just a year ago).  The 2021 budget set out not just spending plans, but also a souped up approach to measuring outcomes and cost-effectiveness of government spending. How are these playing out, and will they survive the No 10 merry-go-round?

Rishi Sunak, then eight months into the job as Chancellor, noted that government borrowing was relatively high after the pandemic, warned of the public finances’ exposure to rises in interest rates, and outlined how spending was being linked to the delivery of outcomes alongside across the board ‘efficiency savings’:

The fiscal impact of a one percentage point rise in interest rates in the next year would be six times greater than it was just before the financial crisis, and almost twice what it was before the pandemic…

Decisions have been based on how spending will contribute to the delivery of each department’s priority outcomes, underpinned by high-quality evidence. The government has also taken further action to drive out inefficiency; SR21 confirms savings of 5% against day-to-day central departmental budgets in 2024-25. (page 2)

The “priority outcomes” are the latest in a long line of attempts to prod government spending into delivering effectively on political priorities, rather than blindly increasing/decreasing by x % compared to last year.  A 2019 report from the Institute for Government helpfully outlines many of these earlier initiatives (summary from the House of Commons Library) including:

  • “Scrutiny programmes” and the Financial Management Initiative (FMI), introduced under Thatcher.
  • The Cabinet Office and Treasury set up the Financial Management Unit (FMU) in 1982 to help with creating plans under the FMI.
  • The “Next Steps” report, published in 1988, which recommended the establishment of executive agencies to carry out the executive functions of government.
  • Tony Blair’s administration developed a greater focus on performance targets and Public Service Agreements (PSAs) which put these targets on a formal basis.
  • In 2001, Blair’s government also set up the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU), which was intended to coordinate PSAs and bring them under more central control.
  • Under the coalition government in 2010-15, PSAs were abolished and replaced with Departmental Business Plans (DBPs). These shifted the focus from targets to actions – in other words, they listed what each department would do and by when, rather than what they sought to achieve.
  • Under the Conservative government in 2016, DBPs were renamed to Single Departmental Plans (SDPs), which were themselves renamed to Outcome Delivery Plans (ODPs) in 2021. According to the NAO, SDPs (and by extension, ODPs) are supposed to be “comprehensive, costed business plans”.

As well as having to write down what outcomes they want to achieve, and how they will know whether that is happening, under the SDP system departments were also required “to assess progress in delivering their priority outcomes [and] … share regular performance reports with HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office”. 

In the 2021 spending review, the departmental outcomes were spruced up to reflect the (now last-but-one) PM’s five priorities of levelling up; net zero; education, jobs and skills; recovering the NHS; and reducing the volume and harm of crime.  

This blog’s audience may be interested in “Where does local government fit in this compendium of key priorities?”  The answer is a little depressing: on the last line of the last page (page 30 of 33), just before the devolved government departments. The relevant outcome is inspiring enough: “A sustainable and resilient local government sector that delivers priority services and helps build more empowered and integrated communities”, albeit with the reassuringly non-SMART measure that “the department will provide narrative reporting on progress for this outcome”.  Of course I exaggerate, because local government has critical inputs to very many of the earlier outcomes too, but it’s hard not to conclude that local services and communities were not yet at the top of the ministerial attention list.

Will the “priority outcomes” survive the whirlwind of ministerial movements and unforced economic missteps?  After the last seven weeks, I’m not going to make predictions – but we should know in the next month, and alongside the financial figures they could be our best hint yet on where a Sunak government is heading.

Picture credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Du_6mRV8Hm8

Jason Lowther is the Director of INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he worked with West Midlands Combined Authority, led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther

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