Coalition midterm review: an unhappy exercise with minimal upside

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Any government exercise setting out how well it is faring is likely to hit a wall of cynicism, as Tony Blair discovered to his cost when he published three annual reports at the start of his regime.

William Hague, the opposition leader, laughed at the unsold copies piled up in supermarkets, saying: "It's not Harry Potter." Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, added: "If we all wrote our own end-of-term reports, we'd all give ourselves top marks."

Governments are on a hiding to nothing. If the review is too self-critical, the media seize on the admissions of failure. If it is Panglossian, there are comparisons to Soviet Union tractor production figures. So the new executive director of communications, Alex Aiken – a man who shot to fame as the Conservative press officer grappling with a Daily Mirror reporter dressed as a chicken in the 1997 election – will probably be advising No 10 not to undertake the exercise again. Fortunately for the government, a midterm review is by its very nature a one-off.

But leafing through the audit of 399 pledges made in the initial coalition document, the impression is at the very least of a highly active government, even if there is no overall scorecard measuring success. So for those that thought coalition would necessarily lead to gridlock, or inertia, the sheer volume of the document proves them wrong.

As Nick Clegg said on Wednesday, the civil service continues to claim that coalition has revived cabinet government and coherent decision making.

Nevertheless, the wisdom of expending such energy on these reports is questionable, especially if it repeatedly glides over broken promises and policy U-turns. The upside is minimal. Few people after all will cast their vote on the basis that the government broke a commitment to set up a new serious crime agency by 2012.

But the governments of Blair, Gordon Brown and Cameron have all felt compelled to measure their progress. Most of this has been for internal management processes, using the adage "what you cannot measure you cannot manage".

Blair and Brown developed a myriad of departmental targets entitled public service agreements, jointly driven from the Treasury as well as Michael Barber's delivery unit. They tried to track whether the public services were meeting measurable goals. This required building highly complex metrics of success for quite broad goals such as speeding up youth justice, or reducing drug use. Vast technical notes sprung up alongside over 300 PSAs.This, in turn, took time, and by the point the system was credibly functioning, the fashion turned heavily against centrally set top-down targets. Gus O'Donnell, the then head of the civil service, took to publishing broader traffic light measurements of how well departments were doing.

The arrival of the Conservatives did not see an abandonment of command and control. Steve Hilton, the director of strategy and a civil service sceptic, required every department to set out a business plan defining the actions it was expected to achieve by stated dates. It was conceived as a means of speeding up government.

Each month on a special transparency page of the Downing Street website, an update is published showing how departments are doing at meeting their tasks. A little pie chart shows 49.5% of the 1,300 or so actions across government are in progress, 32.8% complete, 11.9% yet to start, 1.7% yet to start and overdue and 4.3% in progress and overdue. For the progress chaser and bean counter, it is a treat.

Breakdowns are also provided by department of what proportion of tasks have been completed. It is then possible to find out on each government website how the department is performing against "input and impact indicators" set out in their business plans. By this stage, the obsessive is getting closer to finding out how the government is performing against a series of measurable goals, such as number of people in poverty or workless households.

Doubtless, on reflection, it would have been wiser for No 10 to sagely point to this existing mass of information rather than produce a special document to be published alongside the midterm review.

But the whole review has been an unhappy exercise. It was strange to have two government ministers resign in the midst of the process, and then to allow one of them on to Channel 4 to say relations with the Lib Dems in the Lords are terrible – all on the day the main message was the coalition was working.

It also seems strange for the government to be discussing internally as late as Monday the PR of whether to publish the annexe of government successes and failures. The review, after all, has been in gestation for months.

Perhaps, as some suggested on Wednesday, Cameron should have read the small print on a Ronseal tin: "Toxic, keep away from children, may cause death."

Powered by article was written by Patrick Wintour, for The Guardian on Wednesday 9th January 2013 21.43 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010