The government recently published its Outcome Delivery Plans (ODPs), which set out each government department’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) priority outcomes, their strategies for achieving them, and the metrics that will be used to track performance.
The ODPs have replaced the old Single Departmental Plans (SDPs) which outlined a set of SDG-aligned objectives for each UK government department. In its first Voluntary National Review (VNR) in 2019, the UK government claimed that the SDPs represented an SDG implementation plan for the UK.
However, the SDPs were a significantly flawed mechanism for implementing the SDGs in the UK for a number of reasons, not least because they were mapped to Goals rather than targets. There was also no systematic information on policy coherence, many objectives were misaligned or too vague, and there was very little on how the government sought to address inequalities, particularly those related to gender.
Are the new plans an improvement?
Generally, the new ODPs are better than the old plans. There seems to be a better understanding of what the SDGs are, and it is good to see most government departments map their priorities to SDG targets, rather than Goals, which are much less specific. This is something that the Bond SDG Group has been calling for since the UK signed up to the 2030 Agenda in 2015.
However, the priorities are very top-level, with each department only covering three or four Goals, and the plans are inconsistent.
It is good to see that some departments, such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), have gone to the effort of mapping specific projects and programmes under each priority to specific SDG targets.
On the other end of the spectrum, some departments, such as HM Treasury and the Department for International Trade, only map their priorities to SDGs, rather than targets, which, as the SDPs showed, makes it difficult to understand what is really being done in practice.
A total of 58 of 169 SDG targets have not been addressed at all in the ODPs. This implies that the UK is not planning on implementing a third of all SDG targets, which is highly concerning.
What is clearly missing in all ODPs is a sense of narrative around the SDGs, which could help ensure the targets and transformative principles of the 2030 Agenda are embedded into their work rather than merely name checked. There is also no mention in any of the plans of how they will help to implement the government’s promise to Leave No One Behind, a central pillar of the Agenda.
What do the plans tell us about the government’s priorities?
Looking at which Goals have the most targets covered in these public plans, we can clearly see where the government’s priorities appear to be, and, perhaps more importantly, where they appear not to be. Goals related to economic growth, climate and health have the best coverage. Those related to tackling poverty, hunger and inequality are significantly under-represented, issues which have been exacerbated by Covid-19.
It is also disappointing to see a lack of priority given to Goal 17, which seeks to strengthen the means of implementation and global partnership for sustainable development, including essential areas such as aid, trade and technology.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) accounts for four of 19 Goal 17 targets covered, with only one other targeted elsewhere. And these are mapped to the FCDO’s priority to “extend and amplify the UK’s influence in the world” rather than to being “a force for good in the world”.
It is disappointing that more SDG17 targets are not covered, particularly those relating to enhancing partnership, promoting equitable trade and long-term debt sustainability, policy coherence, and capacity building. We would like to see the FCDO prioritising global partnership and cooperation, but, from looking at these public plans, this does not appear to be the case.
It is also concerning that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has not mapped any of its priorities to SDG targets. Local government has a critical role to play in the implementation of the Goals, particularly to foster the link between the SDGs and local communities, so this lack of attention may have serious implications for the government’s overall commitment to achieve the SDGs by 2030.
Alongside the ODPs, the government also published an overview report on how the government is supporting the delivery of the SDGs. Many of the objectives outlined are cross-cutting, and more than one department is often listed as working towards a particular priority.
Although it is good to see this kind of cross-governmental thinking, this report raises more questions than it answers, and does not explain how the SDGs are driving policy, even indirectly. The overview report also only aligns the priorities to Goals, rather than targets, which makes accountability that much harder.
Policy coherence and cross-government coordination are essential to the delivery of the SDGs but without a coherent approach, opportunities for joint work will be missed.
The new ODPs are clearly a step in the right direction, but these public versions don’t yet provide the detail we need to fully understand how the government is implementing the SDGs. The government should publish further detail and encourage departments to follow the good practice of those such as DEFRA that have mapped their projects and programmes to SDG targets.
But much more is needed if the UK is to accelerate action to help achieve the transformative potential of the 2030 Agenda. The government should publish a narrative to explain how it is incorporating the underlying principles of the Agenda and fully integrating it into its plans by evaluating and identifying gaps, adapting policies, and targeting areas where further progress is needed, to ensure no one is left behind.
This must be done through an inclusive and participatory process alongside civil society among others. To achieve this, the UK government should take immediate action to fulfil its 2019 VNR commitments and establish an inclusive, multi-stakeholder engagement mechanism on SDG implementation.