A critical Cabinet Office review has called for a new revolution to take place within central departments to bring their 127 executive agencies into the 21st century. The agencies were split off from parent departments in 1989 to secure a more focused service delivery and they provide functions such as pensions, passports, vehicle licences and prisons.The review team, which was led by Pam Alexander, former Chief Executive of English Heritage, found that the agencies are contributing little to the modernizing agenda. The main weaknesses were the way in which agencies had become detached from their departments and their departments’ aspiration, and their conservative approach to performance management and target setting.
The agencies were set up almost a decade before there was official. recognition of the need for ‘joined-up government’ and the fragmentation that resulted was acceptable in the climate of the day. Over the years the agencies have in many cases become disconnected from their departments while demands for joined-up services have grown. The review report calls for a reconnection and a narrowing of the gulf between policy and delivery.
The performance management of agencies is severely criticized. There is a wealth of guidance on performance management, but it is little used. Targets do not measure the right things, there are too many key performance targets and many targets ‘have grown old and worn, with little enthusiasm or incentive to make changes’. Targets are not being used effectively to drive up performance. It was found that 51 per cent of the targets set for 1999/2000 were lower than outturns already achieved for 1998/99 and another 19 per cent held steady. Only 30 per cent of targets aimed at improvement.
Target also failed to meet public expectations and in some cases were simply designed to ensure that they could be met. In 1999 over 500 people missed their travel dates as a result of delays in the issuing of passports and thousands more were subject to anxiety and inconvenience, many of whom stood in long queues in the rain protected by umbrellas provided by the Passport Agency. Despite this failure the Agency achieved the target set by the Home Office of meeting 99.9 per cent of travel dates.