Public Expenditure Planning and Control in Complex Times:  A Study of Whitehall Departments’ Relationship to the Treasury (1993-Present) is a Nuffield Foundation funded project that seeks to explore a potential paradox to emerge over recent decades in the British system of government – centralised financial control in an era of fragmentation within the governing process.

It examines public expenditure coordination, control and delivery between HM Treasury, Whitehall government departments and their delivery agents from 1993 to the present day, examining the challenges to achieving effective financial control of public expenditure. The project complements the Nuffield Foundation funded work on History of the United Kingdom’s planning and control of public expenditure and Planning for revisions to UK government expenditure plans.

There is widespread recognition that public services are better delivered by a more devolved approach, accommodating local services and interagency working. Recent decades have seen increasing complexity and fragmentation within the governing process. However, throughout these changes, the Treasury has maintained a highly centralised system of financial control.

This project will explore this tension, from the perspective of departments and their delivery agents, and its impact on the Treasury’s capacity to maintain effective expenditure control. It will focus on four Whitehall departments: Education, Work and Pensions, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice (and their predecessors). It will investigate how Treasury’s mechanisms of financial control have been interpreted and responded to, whether and how this has led to the emergence of ‘implementation gaps’ between policy intention and delivery, and pinpoint key junctures where expenditure controls have succeeded or failed.

The research will focus first on a historical analysis of changing relations between the Treasury, departments, and delivery agents drawing on government papers, official documents and secondary sources such as business cases and impact assessments. The second phase will trace specific lines of expenditure from sign-off to implementation, drawing on quantitative data from sources including archival material from the Treasury, National Audit Office and relevant Select Committees and qualitative data collected from 80-100 key actors over time from within the relevant departments and delivery agencies. It will also draw on Nuffield Foundation funded work on Education spending pressure and challenges.

The research will provide a better understanding of the complexity of financial control in an age of fragmented governance and offer lessons for parliamentarians and policymakers for developing mechanisms better suited to complex, interagency networks of delivery.

The project is led by Professor David Richards in the Department of Politics, University of Manchester.


This project is funded by the Nuffield Foundation.March 2020- February 2023.