View from the House – Jim Cousins

A radical change in British governance is taking place with the introduction of Public Service Agreements. The 600 targets and indicators of performance set new tests for government and new standards of accountability.

They require government departments to work together to deliver multi-disciplinary targets in such areas as action against drug misuse, and Sure Start (improving life chances in the early years).

They provide tests of the efficiency and productivity of government programmes.

They will both measure the outcomes of government spending, and assess where new investment is required.

The public service agreements link to output and performance analyses (OPAs) for government departments and agencies. These will repay close examination. The OPA for the Inland Revenue, for example, provides a measure of the proportion of the Revenue’s advice to ministers which was found satisfactory.

Of course, there is much that is still unsatisfactory. The sheer number of agreements – and the fact that the departmental OPAs run in parallel make the new system over complex and obscure.

Many of the indicators measure outputs, not genuine outcomes. But in areas of high public exposure, such as health and education, there has been a genuine attempt to set outcome measures.

Monitoring and revising targets will take place inside the Whitehall machine. Reporting on PSAs and OPAs in departmental annual reports is cumbersome and remote. This will not mobilise energy, enthusiasm and stakeholding in the system of targets in many government agencies and departments, let alone the wider public.

It is depressing that, rather characteristically, accountants should seek to establish a new monopoly of audit of the targets. And then fall out over whether the private sector, the National Audit Office or the Audit Commission should perform the audit role.

Government has not (yet) accepted the case for an independent public audit and review of PSAs and OPAs. The behind the scenes haggling of the existing audit bodies may be one reason for that.

An independent review, carried out in an accessible way for a wider public, is clearly essential. ‘Auditing’ will not be of the traditional kind.

We need a wider debate on what form the independent review might take.

Jim Cousins is Labour MP for Newcastle Central.

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