Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140
TUESDAY 15 JANUARY 2002
MP AND MR
140. Is that a publishing term?
(Mr Smith) In referring to the annex to the guidance
what I am pointing out is that the main departmental report, yes,
it is more focussed, yes it is slimmed down. What I am saying
is the information which was otherwise in the departmental report
last year will appear either in the Estimates, which will be a
separate document, but we can produce and present it alongside
for Parliament, if that is what the Committee wants, and there
will be also be supplementary budgetary information which is not
going to those lay readers but, nonetheless, is important to specialists
and is a document of record.
141. You must have misheard me, the departmental
report itself will be a thinner volume than last year?
(Mr Smith) Yes.
142. It will be thinner. What you have taken
out of it are some of the core financial tables, that is right,
is it not?
(Mr Smith) Things like the estimates, yes.
143. You say the report will contain a reduced
set of financial tables?
(Mr Smith) Reduced from 12 tables to six tables.
144. Right. It will be more difficult for the
reader to make comparisons between previous years, previous governments,
(Mr Smith) I do not think it will be. First of all,
if you are talking about previous years and previous governments
it was the practice in the past, of course, for the Estimates
to be published separately in any event. As I said earlier on
in my answers, I think it is very important, indeed, to have the
ability to read across from one table in one publication say to
the Estimates or to the supplementary budgetary information so
that is a clear avenue for the people who want to undertake those
comparisons. I do actually see some advantages in the Estimates
in written form being physically separate. We have all had the
experience of thumbing through a very thick volume and trying
to compare one table in one part of the report with a table in
another part and you can actually physically put the tables along
side each other to check the reconciliation. I do take seriously
the comments that were made when Adam Sharples was in front of
the Committee last time and members were making the point that
it is very useful to have these documents alongside one another.
Depending on the Committee's views I am very willing to do what
we can in actually publishing the information to Parliament physically
by ring-binder, or whatever, to have the Estimates alongside the
departmental reports if that is what the Committee feels would
be most helpful for MPs.
145. What I am trying to get absolutely clear
is there will be no overall loss of comparative information?
(Mr Smith) No.
146. That is the position, is it?
(Mr Smith) Yes.
147. In the Review Report, paragraph 21, it
says, "These financial tables are too complicated to be meaningful
to the non-expert reader, while the expert reader would also benefit
from improved presentation". Which are you?
(Mr Smith) Which am I?
(Mr Smith) I published the thing so I am the expert
149. Do you read them all?
(Mr Smith) I do read through them all, yes.
150. Do you not think in trying to improve the
take-up of departmental reports there is some danger of people
being referred to other documents and being expected to get hold
of estimates or the autumn figures, or whatever, losing the sort
of central integrity of a single departmental report that says
what the department is about, what it has achieved and what it
is going to achieve?
(Mr Smith) I think there is a danger and that is why
it is important that where there is a read across to other documents,
that is clearly spelt out. Let us not lose sight either of the
gain that there will be with a clear focus on the information
which most readers are most interested in, which is basically
where their money is going, what they are getting for it and how
departments are performing. I sincerely believe that that will
emerge more clearly from the reports representing this year. Of
course the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. You and
other committees and other Members will look at them. Indeed,
were it helpful to the Committee for the Treasury, or us jointly
with the select committee, to survey MPs of what they thought
of the departmental reports, what format they wanted them and
what they thought of the revised presentation I would be very
happy to do that.
151. Finally, you refer in a letter or, else
where, to the enormous amount of resources this whole exercise
consumes in Whitehall, that being one of the reasons for the Review,
to make sure that resources in Whitehall are used efficiently.
Have you made any estimate of the savings in resources that will
result from the new approach?
(Mr Smith) I think it is very difficult to make such
estimates, either on the cost of the production of the reports
as they were last year or, indeed, exactly what it would be under
the new proposals. The reason for that, of course, is you have
some people who are working largely or solely on the departmental
report and, yes, you could allocate their salary to the cost.
Obviously as is reflected in the cover price, you can have the
costs of printing and layout and graphics. In practice when a
report is produced it is drawing on the resources very extensively
of the department, of the accounting officers and also policy
officers. I suppose one could go through and try and estimate
what the cost would be, and that in itself would not be an uncostly
152. The Spring documents will include a report
assessing performance against public service agreements, is that
(Mr Smith) Yes.
153. That will be the case in all of them?
(Mr Smith) Yes.
154. How exactly is that going to be presented?
(Mr Smith) As clearly as possible, in other words
target by target what the progress is. We will have the dual aspect
this year, of course, of the Comprehensive Spending Review PSA
targets, of which we are at the third year, plus year one of the
Spending Review 2000 and targets. Again, the guidance to departments
says departments must make clear in the case of the 1998 CSR targets
what the progress has been against them, if ones have been consolidated
into a Spending Review 2000 target how that has been done and
if any have been dropped which they are and why.
155. Will your guidance ensure that as we read
from document to document to document we are really comparing
like with like in terms of assessing how departments are doing
in terms of their meeting PSAs or are we going to have to search
through and find it in different parts of the documents presented
in a different way in different sorts of language? Will it be
completely harmonised so we can tease out the performance of these
PSAs with ease?
(Mr Smith) I would not go so far as to say completely
harmonised, I am not quite sure what that would mean. That each
report must enable the reader very clearly to see what progress
is against targets to make comparisons is one of the objectives.
Indeed the guidance specifically says that if a department in
its report wants to report targets in different sections, you
can imagine if you are organising a report by functions of a department
it might not be a bad idea to do that but there should be, separately,
a consolidated table that brings the targets together to ease
precisely the sort of comparison we are seeking.
156. It seems to me that this may be one of
the most attractiveattractive is the wrong word, this may
be one of the biggest draws to come in and read this report because
assessing how departments are doing on PSAs is a pretty central
task for Parliament to do, certainly for the press and for large
sections of the public as well.
(Mr Smith) Yes.
157. In that sense I am pleased to hear you
say that there will be a consolidated table contained in each
of the reports. Do you think there is a case for extracting those
from each of the departmental reports and publishing one document
which shows how across Government performance is against Public
(Mr Smith) Certainly I will give consideration to
that. I can see the case.
(Mr Sharples) Perhaps I could add on PSA reporting
that departmental reports published over the last two years have
included such a table at the beginning of the report reporting
against each target. What we want to do is try and build on that
by improving the reporting and, as the Chief Secretary says, if
departments are to decide to publish details of performance against
targets in each chapter of the report, for example, certainly
they should include a summary table at the end. You will have
seen from the guidance that we have issued to departments that
we have given a very strong steer that reporting must be objective
reporting on progress and that departments should think about
how they can use graphics, for example, using graphs to demonstrate
the trends against the target. We do feel that the new approach
as well as giving twice yearly reports on performance, whereas
in the past we only had once a year reports on performance, will
also give better presented reports on performance as well.
158. You have invited departments to think about
ways of presenting this information clearly but that opens the
possibility of different departments coming to different conclusions
about what amounts to clear presentation because then cross-referencing
it is not going to be very easy. Have you given any thought to
(Mr Smith) First of all, key core financial information
is brought together in standardised tables, that is an area where
the department does not have discretion. Equally, as we have said,
they have got to report comprehensively and objectively on their
performance against the PSAs and we have suggested that it is
consolidated in a table if they have decided to separate it out.
So those key bits of information will be available on a standard
basis to the reader of cross reports.
159. I am just anticipating that one issue readers
will want to settle is how departments are doing against each
other in terms of delivering on their PSAs, not just within a
department, and for that purpose it is going to have to be very
easy to dig into each of the documents and make sure you are looking
at something pretty standardised to arrive at a fair conclusion
and an accurate conclusion.
(Mr Smith) Yes.
5 Ev 16 QQ86-95. Back