Four-year government plans miss the target

Marc Sidwell
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are calling it a revolution. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have announced a rejection of Labour’s target culture, offering instead four-year departmental business plans, opened up for public scrutiny and updated by regular progress reports. The ministerial statement claims this will “change the nature of government”, but this does not look like the accountability revolution Britain needs.

Labour’s love of targets certainly needed reassessment. Too often these micro-managed numbers brought in distortions and unintended consequences as they drove managers to please ministers rather than to improve service. The Francis report published earlier this year on the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust identified “target-driven priorities” as a significant factor in the trust’s poor standards of care.

There are other positive aspects to the reforms. The coalition programme for government promised to create a new “right to data” for British citizens, and the greater openness at the heart of the new business plans reflects that determination. The Institute of Directors has already been able to examine the HMRC’s business plan and point out both its strengths, such as including real-time PAYE information, and critical failures, such as allocating £900m to increase tax revenues before the plan on how to do so has been written.

However, while David Cameron rejoiced in this new “democratic accountability”, saying “reform will be driven not by the short-term political calculations of the government, but by the consistent, long-term pressure of what people want and choose in their public services”, there is a danger that public pressure will focus on a few causes célèbres at the expense of a coherent strategy. This also bedevilled Labour’s targets, with fears over MRSA leading to the rushed introduction of a target, despite MRSA accounting for only two per cent of healthcare-acquired infections in the NHS.

The real problem is that these reforms fall between two stools: promising neither the immediate accountability to customers of privately-run competitive services nor the carefully-considered judgement of a representative parliament. Indeed, the reforms shift power away from the highly visible select committees of the legislature into the discreet prerogative of the executive. Secretaries of state will report to the prime minister over unmet targets in their business plans. Douglas Carswell MP, co-author of The Plan, a manifesto for greater accountability in British politics, said the announcement failed to make Whitehall answerable to parliament.

The Plan argues for open primaries to better represent citizens’ views in parliament and elected chairmen of select committees with greater powers. A four-year plan with an open comments thread is a poor substitute for real democratic accountability.