A closer look at department business plans

blog auhtor tom elkinsEarlier in June, government published its long awaited business plans, setting out each department’s aims, activities and major projects for the next twelve months. As we reported earlier in the year, the announcement that Number 10 was making the Compact one of its cross-departmental business plan priorities was welcome news.
It suggested that government was taking its relationship with the sector seriously, that it was committed to the Compact. It also suggested that government was responsive to the criticisms levelled at it in the NAO’s earlier investigation into the Compact’s implementation across government.
One of the emerging findings from Compact Voice’s recent survey of local Compact areas indicates that a third of respondents think that the business plans will have a positive impact locally. Compact Voice has stated that national leadership can have a positive impact locally, and the survey’s findings gives weight to that view.
But now that the plans are published, does their content justify the enthusiasm which accompanied their launch?
The business plans themselves are a fascinating insight into this government’s planned activities, with the number of cross-departmental priorities fluctuating between five and seven depending on the department. They include growth, social mobility, open public services, red tape challenge, sustainable development, efficiency, and of course the Civil Society Compact. The Compact features in all (except – understandably given that the Compact is England only - Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), and looking through them, as Compact Voice’s chair recently reported, it’s a mixed picture.
How departments will deliver the Compact has mostly been presented in one of three ways: many relate to or expand on activities described in the body of the plans. Others simply state a commitment to the principles of Compact, while others identify a broad programme of activity with the voluntary and community sector which arguably goes beyond the scope of implementing the Compact. Worryingly, few seem to have comprehensively taken into account the recommendations contained in the NAO’s report, and we will contact NAO to see how they are intending to monitor progress since they published their findings in January.
It’s difficult not to feel a degree of trepidation about those plans which list a range of activities with the VCS but make no real reference to the Compact at all. This could suggest that the Compact is an afterthought rather than a foundation for collaboration with the voluntary sector.
There are some positive plans though, which seem to both genuinely understand the importance of the Compact, and introduce activities which will strengthen it. Importantly, these plans enable both Compact Voice and the sector to hold departments to account, check progress against their implementation, and enable us to challenge where the principles of the Compact haven’t been successfully used.
While the real test of the success of these plans will be in how departments now conduct their relationship with the sector, it’s hard not to feel that more could have been done by some. We repeatedly made the offer to work with many departments, with some receptive to meeting with us, and others not. And our suggestions were reflected in some of the plans, but ignored in others, which is as disappointing as it is frustrating.
But I do know that this is a positive start, and let’s not forget that it’s the first year this has happened. It gives us a strong foundation, a footing in departments which we didn’t have before. We will continue to monitor progress against the plans, and push for the Compact to be included as a business plan priority in subsequent years too. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. 

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