Permanent Secretaries' Objectives

There is a fundamental problem at the heart of government. The most senior officials do not have clear objectives. This is not their fault, nor is it Ministers' fault, but it does mean that the management of the most senior cadre of officials is extremely weak.

By way of example, let's consider what the Home Office Permanent Secretary should be aiming to achieve. Cut crime by x%? Cut immigration to tens of thousands? He or she - and their experienced officials - probably have a pretty good idea how to achieve both of these, but it is highly unlikely that Ministers would agree to pass the necessary legislation (or that they would win the next election if they did agree). Cutting crime, for instance, might well be best achieved by decriminalising and regulating drugs, and by sharply increasing the cost of alcohol.

And then what about all the external factors that influence crime rates, for instance. One of the main reasons there is a lot more crime now than after the War, say, is that there is so much more to nick! Rising incomes, too, greatly encourage alcohol and drug consumption. Let's crash the economy so as to reduce crime is not exactly a vote-winning strategy - although it would also help cut immigration.

All in all, therefore, no sensible Minister is going to task his or her Permanent Secretary with hard measurable objectives. And no sensible Permanent Secretary is going to accept objectives whose achievement is totally outside their control. As a result, no-one puts any serious effort into defining worthwhile objectives for Permanent Secretaries or other very senior officials. Instead, you get vague lists of activities along the lines of these so-called objectives attributed to the Home Office Permanent Secretary in 2015-16. There is no sign of a quantifiable objective which would force the PS to be held to account for achieving an objective that would be regarded as important by a typical voter.. Unless he was a total idiot (which he wasn't) he could not possible fail to do what he was asked to do in this document.

Even worse, the document wasn't published until February 2016, which strongly suggests that it wasn't agreed until much of the year (to March 2016) had already passed by. And it contains far too many (so-called) objectives so that many of them were in effect tick boxes (probably delegated to juniors) or else distractions from the main work of the department.

The IfG describes PS Objectives as Meaningless

The Institute for Government takes a deep, and equally critical, interest in this subject. Here are extracts from their Whitehall Monitor published in April 2016:

We were critical of permanent secretary objectives when they were first published in 2012–13, and then again in 2013–14. There were too many objectives and not enough measures. They were published too late into the year they applied to. There was too much inconsistency for them to be useful in performance management. And there was a ‘Christmas tree’ effect, as far too many things were hung on them.

The 2014–15 objectives were noticeably better. Most obviously, a review by Mark Lowcock, Permanent Secretary at DfID, formed the basis for a more sensible approach, introducing a new format that felled most of the Christmas trees.

So, do the 2015–16 objectives continue that improvement or do they revert to the meaningless? Unfortunately, it seems to be the latter.

The number of objectives for each permanent secretary varies between seven and 20; the average number has risen from nine in 2014–15 to 14 in 2015–16.

The number of measures against the objectives has spiralled. The average number of measures this year is 39, up from 15 in 2014–15, a ludicrously high number that suggests that the measures are now the Christmas tree on which all variety of tasks and asks are being hung, rather than the objectives themselves. In short, they are being used rather as the objectives were in previous years. Four permanent secretaries have more than 60 measures against their objectives: Owen at DCMS (83), O’Brien at DH (70), Wormald at DfE (65) and Dawes at DCLG (61).

There are other problems, reflecting the inconsistency and deterioration of the objectives as a whole.

Departments are inconsistent in how they format and organise their objectives. They confuse measures, milestones and means of reaching them. The inconsistency across departments and the sheer number of objectives questions how useful and usable they are – and crucially, whether they are actually being used to measure performance (one of the FCO’s objectives was to raise engagement scores to ‘x%’).

The 2015–16 measures have also been published very late into the year they are supposed to measure – February 2016, for measures extending from April 2015 to March 2016. This may be in part due to the change in government or it could owe something to the (belated) publication of Single Departmental Plans (SDPs) on the same day in February 2016. Indeed, a number of the objectives explicitly reference the SDPs as their source, even though the SDPs were only finalised and published with three months of the year the objectives supposedly refer to remaining.

It has been suggested that, in future, permanent secretary objectives may be aligned with the SDPs; but (as we have previously argued) these are merely a laundry list of nice-to-haves, giving no sense of ministerial priorities. Until the SDPs that are in the public domain are of higher quality, linking the permanent secretary objectives to them risks worsening the objectives further.



Martin Stanley

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