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Less paper, more hot air

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AS a department of ‘the greenest government ever’, Defra is committed to eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy and reducing waste and, in terms of saving on paper, it is already proving true to its word. Its latest business plan runs to just 24 pages which, compared to similar documents published under the previous administration, is positively slim.* Whether this reduction in width is matched by an increase in quality is open to debate: the document seems big on aspiration but short on detail of how the department's vision might be achieved.

The Prime Minister launched business plans for all government departments, including Defra, on November 8. The plans have been produced to a standard format devised by the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and 10 Downing Street, and are intended ‘fundamentally to change the way that departments are held accountable to the public for putting policies into practice’. Each business plan includes a vision, describing how the department will operate over the next four years, as well as setting out specific priorities. Reflecting the Coalition's commitment to a programme of reform that will ‘turn government on its head’, the business plans also include a structural reform plan, intended to explain how the department will contribute both to ‘a power shift’ (‘taking power away from Whitehall and putting it into the hands of people and communities’) and ‘a horizon shift’ (‘making the decisions that will equip Britain for long-term success’). They also set out measures intended to improve transparency. Each plan will be refreshed annually.

It would be hard to disagree with Defra's ‘structural reform priorities’, which will be: to ‘support and develop British farming and encourage sustainable food production’; to ‘help to enhance the environment and biodiversity to improve quality of life’; and to ‘support a strong and sustainable green economy, resilient to climate change’. Nor would one want to disagree with its other priorities, which will be to ‘prepare for and manage risk from animal and plant disease’ and to ‘prepare for and manage risk from flood and other environmental emergencies’. Unusually, however, the document also includes what might be called negative priorities – things the department promises it will no longer be doing. These include holding on to power at a national level unless absolutely necessary, and allowing key policy issues to be determined by democratically unaccountable bodies. Some might see a contradiction between the idea of relinquishing power at national level and another stated aim of reforming public bodies to ‘bring policy functions in house’. These negative priorities also smack more of party politics than might normally be expected of a Civil Service document.

The structural reform section sets out intended ‘actions’ as well as ‘milestones’ by which progress will be measured, which is helpful. However, most of these actions are works in progress and, in most cases, one is left guessing as to what the outcome might be. From a veterinary perspective, items of interest include review of the Animal Welfare Act and reform of the animal welfare inspection regime; developing affordable options for badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine TB; and setting out plans on animal disease responsibility sharing.

The document outlines only in very broad terms how departmental spending will be cut over the next five years – from £2.9 billion in 2010/11 to £2.2 billion in 2014/15. The biggest cuts will be in 2011/12, when overall spending will be reduced by £0.3 billion, but a detailed breakdown of the budgets will not be published until April next year, when Defra, like other government departments, will set out in detail how its settlement will be allocated for the 2011/12 financial year.

A section on transparency in the document indicates areas where more data will be made available but also includes the statement: ‘We will use transparency to facilitate the choice and democratic accountability which will replace top-down targets and micromanagement.’ Anyone who has yet to reach diploma level in management speak may need help in interpreting what this means.

It is always helpful for government departments to give an indication of what they will be doing over the next few years. However, in many respects, Defra's business plan for 2011–2015 still reads more like a manifesto than anything else. Si× months after the election and the formation of the Coalition government, one might have hoped for more detail of how the aims expressed might be achieved.

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