Government Business Plans

29 11 2010

On 8 November the government published business plans that set out in detail the work of Government for the next four years. The plans include information on department vision, how this fits with coalition priorities, structural reform plans, department expenditure and information on transparency. Taken together these lie at the very heart of the coalition’s radical agenda for accountability and transparency.

In launching the plans David Cameron spoke both of a ‘horizon shift’ and a ‘power shift’ that would “change the way that government works”.

“Instead of bureaucratic accountability to the government machine, these business plans bring in a new system of democratic accountability – accountability to the people.” This means a horizon shift to long-term government planning for the people rather than short-term political goals.

The Prime Minister also lauded the plans as a move towards greater transparency in Whitehall, part of a “power shift” giving people enough information to hold government to account.

Under the new initiative each department will have to produce a monthly progress report – and the secretary of state will have to account to the prime minister if they are not on track.

The most significant development that differentiates these from the previous government’s public service agreements is that the departments’ business plans show when they are due to start, due to end and what progress has been made.

In an example of how they can work, and create a “rod for (the governments) back”, they  also shows that three projects are already overdue – two at the Cabinet Office relating to publishing details of big IT projects and guidance about the cost of IT projects, and a Ministry of Justice strategy to reduce re-offending and improve rehabilitation – which was due in October.

The potential provided by the business plans for improved accountability and continued increases in transparency is considerable. It will be interesting to see how civic society makes use of these opportunities.

Sean Kirwan

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Government response to comments on the Coalition Programme

2 08 2010

On Friday 30th July, the government published responses, by department, to the public opinions expressed on ‘The Coalition: our programme for government’ website. In the past three weeks, the website published over 9,500 comments from the public on the Coalition programme on subjects as wide-ranging as defence, civil liberties and banking. In a video posted to the Number 10 website, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, hailed the latest developments thus:

‘The response has been fantastic and I’m pleased to see people have really engaged with this process. I hope people will see that this is different, it’s a permanent change to the way we run government, and that it is worthwhile engaging in this kind of process in the future. It’s important for us in government to remember we don’t have all the answers.’

His comments were echoed by Oliver Letwin, Minister of State for the Cabinet Office:

‘At last, government has realised that there are 60 million citizens who really do have ideas. Through processes like this, we can give real power to the people and make things open.’

In a statement on the Cabinet Office website, the government thanked those who chose to comment on the programme for government and reiterated its commitment to the use of open standards and transparency. Furthermore, the government hailed the opportunity for open source software to drive down procurement prices and avoid dependence on inefficient vendors. The government also announced that ‘Guidance for Procurers’ will be published in September 2010. The aim of this guidance is to ensure that new IT procurements for government offer the best value for money possible.

Charlotte Jee       (@charlottejee)





Which government datasets do you want to see released?

23 07 2010

In the latest development in the government transparency drive, today Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office) called for the British public to identify which new government datasets they wish to see made public on data.gov.uk.

This decision was made in the light of a recent meeting of the Public Sector Transparency Board, tasked by the Prime Minister to ensure transparency is at the heart of the governments’ dealings.

As part of this the Transparency Board has identified some frequently requested datasets which include:

  • Land Registry
  • Companies House
  • Integrated Business Register
  • Transport Data include timetables, fare and real time running information
  • Weather information including observations and forecasts
  • Environment Agency data
  • Address register
  • Footpaths

Commenting on today’s developments, Francis Maude said:

“We promised a new approach to government – one that puts transparency at the very heart of everything we do. As part of our commitment to transparency this Government has already published a series of datasets which have never been available to the public before. But it’s not just a one way process: I want people to give their ideas on what datasets they want to see released and not just wait for us to publish.

“As the saying goes, information is power. By making datasets freely available people are more able to hold public bodies to account and challenge them. This is just the start of process which will only end when transparency and openness are an integral part of the way public bodies operate and serve their customers.”

The government has furthermore published procurement spending by English local authorities and the Department of Health for the first time, as an addition to the data made available in the Office of Government Commerce’s Public Sector Procurement Expenditure Survey. This is a survey of central government organisations’ expenditure and provides £86bn of operational data, on what over 130 Central Government Organisations plus English Local Authorities spend in over 120 common categories of procurement. The full data is available here.

Charlotte Jee                    (@charlottejee)





Recent developments in the transparency revolution

21 06 2010

First estimates, released by the government on Friday 18th June, have revealed that 640,000 people are employed by central government, and an additional 20,000 are contractual or temporary staff. Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office) commissioned the exercise to estimate employee numbers, but emphasised that the figures are not yet official statistics.

In a press release on the same day, Francis Maude stressed his ‘absolute commitment to pushing forward with the Government’s transparency agenda’. He pointed out that while the figures released so far are ‘raw and incomplete’, the government will eventually professionalise and better organise the release of data. He also reiterated that the government has ‘promised to keep pushing forward with this agenda and use every opportunity to let the public know what’s really happening in government, even when the information is not perfect’.

A further development in the past week is the appointment of Martha Lane Fox (co-founder of lastminute.com) as UK Digital Champion. Her role will be to ‘encourage as many people as possible to go online’, and improve the convenience and efficiency of the public sector by promoting online services. Ms Lane Fox stated that it was her ‘mission’ to reach out to the 10 million adults who have not yet used the internet.

David Cameron stated: ‘I am delighted that Martha Lane Fox will be our Digital Champion, encouraging more people to go online and access the information and services they need. Getting online can help people save money, find a job, access services in a way that works for them, and make connections with each other and with their community. It will also help us all to drive down the cost of delivering public services.’

In a further development, the transparency revolution has reached Holyrood, which has started to set a precedent for other UK administrations by publishing every piece of monthly expenditure in excess of £25,000. On Friday 18th June, the Scottish government released all spending over that limit for April. The finance spokesman, Derek Brownlee, commended the changes in the following statement:  ‘This is a transparency revolution. It will transform the relationship between government, public bodies and the taxpayer who foots the bill.’

Charlotte Jee             (@charlottejee)





Government Procurement Plans

11 01 2010

Today, Liam Byrne,Secretary to the Treasury,  has announced an action plan setting out how the Government will harness the £220 billion spent by the public on third party goods and services to support growth and economic recovery.

The (catchy) Policy Through Procurement Action Plan

Published by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), the 2009 Plan (announced at the Pre-Budget Review) emphasises three principles:

  • Supporting small and medium-sized enterprises;
  • Encouraging apprenticeships, training and youth employment;
  • Reducing carbon emissions.

95% of contracts are won by UK businesses.

The Rub

This seems a sensible move to ensure that UK government spend supports those hardest hit by the recession: small business and people without skills or qualifications. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In order to supply the government, a company must be registered on an approved supplier list. These vary from sector to sector. I can tell you from personal experience that this is a long, laborious process, which contains arbitrary limits to determine which contracts a supplier can bid for.

The Plan expects to help deliver its objectives by encouraging suppliers to sign up to its voluntary Supplier Charter, but doesn’t make it any easier to become a supplier! A couple of smart PR moves to meet the objectives – a few apprentices and a Toyota Prius – and government procurement will continue much as before.

There is an Access to All programme, which contains the wonderfully encouraging line:

“The Government’s policy on SMEs is to encourage and support these organisations to compete for public sector contracts where this is consistent with value for money policy the UK regulations, EU Treaty principles and EU procurement directives.”

So, small business is welcome on the rare occasions that it treads on literally no one else’s feet?

There is an even more patronising document covered in high-resolution pictures of fish, presumably as some small-fish-big-pond metaphor, which contains some innovative advice for public procurement departments:

“Use your website (see page 10). It is an ideal way of making information available at low cost and
consider including a ‘Selling to…’ guide giving potential suppliers the information they need to
bid effectively.”

With this kind of cutting-edge advice, how can government fail to light the fire of innovation?