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UK Politics

Cameron confronts failing ministers over missed targets


David Cameron has called in senior ministers to Downing Street to ask them to explain why their departments missed key performance targets – which they themselves had set.

An analysis of departmental "business plans", which outline what Whitehall bodies will do and by when they will do it, reveals that most failed to achieve almost a quarter of their targets. Embarrassingly it was the Cabinet Office – which has responsibility for the scheme – which missed the most goals overall with 38 actions overdue for a month or more.

Now The Independent understands that Mr Cameron has spoken to ministers from the worst-performing departments to press them on why they were unable to meet their self-imposed deadlines and how they intend to improve their performance.

The source refused to divulge which ministers had been spoken to but an analysis of the business plans clearly shows which departments have performed worst over the last year.

The shortcomings will be an embarrassment to Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, and Oliver Letwin, a minister of state in the Cabinet Office, who have found their department exposed by a regime they designed in order to trigger a sea-change at Whitehall. Mr Letwin has responsibility to ensure that the business plans are being adhered to.

Mr Maude scrapped dozens of Whitehall performance targets on outcomes and replaced them with the business plans. The plans, which monitor activity rather than results, mean the Cabinet Office is exposed for tardiness while the Ministry of Defence has hit all but four of its milestones.

Some senior Whitehall figures have expressed frustration over the system, arguing it distorts behaviour towards commitments that are often out of date.

Another criticism – from the Institute of Government – is that the business plans are not yet delivering real accountability, as they are difficult to access, understand or compare. The Institute of Government reveals that, of 17 departments analysed, the Cabinet Office has missed the most planned actions overall with 38 overdue for a month or more in the last year. Where overdue actions are represented as a percentage of the total number, the Department of Health came out worst, having had 53 per cent of actions overdue for a month or more.

Other poor performers included the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which missed 34 per cent of its targets, the Home Office, which missed 30 per cent, and the Department for Local Government, which missed 32 per cent.

In addition, the accuracy of the information published also varies widely. Looking at the latest information on the No 10 website, Institute researchers found that there were more than 50 actions that had the wrong status or date against them. The report's author, Justine Stephen, said: "The principle of getting departments to set out what they are going to do, when they will do it and whether this has happened is to be applauded. However, the business plans are not yet delivering real democratic accountability".

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said it had improved its performance in recent months. "In 2011-12, we have met 82 per cent of actions on time and continue to work to ensure commitments are met in the most appropriate manner with the key focus being on delivering the right results in the best possible way."

A Department of Health spokesman added: "This report is misleading and doesn't take account of the timing of the health bill and the 'pause' associated with the listening exercise. This meant that we missed 14 business plan deadlines, but it was worthwhile so we could listen and act on concerns about NHS modernisation. Our latest update in October showed only three outstanding actions in the Business Plan and we are bearing down on those."

Called to account: how they performed

Cabinet Office The department missed the most deadlines with 38 actions overdue.

Department of Health In percentage terms, the Department of Health came off worst with 53 per cent of deadlines missed.

Home Office Delays of a month or more were seen in 30 per cent of the department's actions.

Ministry of Defence One of the better performers: all but four target deadlines were achieved.