UK Voluntary National Review: good signs of progress but it’s a missed opportunity

On 26 June 2019 the UK Government published its Voluntary National Review on the Sustainable Development Goals. In this blog we share some of the highlights and challenges in the review.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are relevant across every aspect of public policy and reviewing a country’s progress on them is no small task, especially when government priorities have been elsewhere.

It’s therefore important to recognise the challenge the Department for International Development faced when coordinating the UK’s Voluntary National Review (VNR), published earlier this month.

It’s a 200+ page document so we’ve helpfully summarised our main observations below.

Finally, stakeholder engagement is taken seriously

In the review the Government commits to establishing ‘an effective mechanism… to enhance stakeholder engagement and cooperation with government in the domestic sphere’. This is something UKSSD has been encouraging the Government to do since they adopted the SDGs in 2015. Although the details of the mechanism are not clear, it’s a positive sign of progress.

Improving policy and planning processes

The review also recognises the need to ‘strengthen the existing means and mechanisms to oversee its contribution to the domestic delivery of the Goals’. This is not as ambitious as committing to develop a national plan for the delivery of the Goals, which we hoped to see. But it does seem to suggest the Government recognises the Single Departmental Planning process is not enough as it stands. This is something we’ve raised concerns about before.

The limited reach of data

The Government has delivered on its intention to produce a data-led review. However, there is very limited critical analysis of the data itself and no effort to understand if or how existing policies are influencing an upward or downward trend. In many cases the data used is limited and doesn’t communicate a complete picture. For example, in Goal 16 data shows a fall in criminal offences but fails to show the rise in hate crime over the same period or what this means for UK society.

Ignoring poor performance

It’s understandable that critically analysing your own Government’s performance on the SDGs is going to be hard. But it appears the UK government’s report is ignoring or misrepresenting the targets for which it is receiving criticism or doing nothing about.. For example, Goal 12 explicitly states the UK does not subsidise fossil fuels. Making excuses with definitions of what is or what isn’t a subsidy doesn’t disguise the Government’s support for fossil fuels in the UK and UK Export Finance, as highlighted in the recent inquiry by the Environmental Audit Committee.

Are we leaving people behind?

To ‘leave no one behind’ is a critical principle that underpins the SDGs. The review makes promising references to it throughout, highlighting the challenges experienced by obvious groups such as women or people with disabilities. However, the review fails to acknowledge the regional disparities that exist across the UK. In Measuring up, UKSSD’s review of the UK’s performance on the SDGs, we identified regional disparities in almost all areas – from access to health care and educational outcomes, to productivity levels and transport infrastructure. In fact, the evidence that people and places are being left behind in the UK was one of the biggest findings in Measuring up.

An unfortunate case of political bias

In his recent evidence to the International Development Select Committee, Rory Stewart, the Secretary of State for International Development, acknowledged the VNR could provide the opposition with a stick to beat the Government with. Effective stakeholder engagement in the process is important in this respect because it helps to negotiate party-political differences to build consensus or broaden our understanding of an issue. Sadly, that hasn’t happened in this review, as is evident under Goal 1 where there’s a failure to recognise the controversy surrounding Universal Credit.  

An absence of local government, Northern Ireland, and the Overseas Territories

It’s notable throughout the review that Northern Ireland features less than England, Scotland and Wales, and there is no explanation of how the Overseas Territories are reporting on their SDG progress. The absence of a functioning government in Northern Ireland is clearly the reason for that gap. But even in the review’s section on the Overseas Territories, there is no explanation for how they will be developing their plans or what the UK’s role will be.

The other significant omission is the voice of local government. Many of the SDGs need to be delivered at a local level for the whole country to achieve them, but excluding a few case studies, the role of local government is largely omitted from the review.    

What happened to our contributions?

Aside from the case studies scattered throughout the report, we cannot see any reference to your case studies and contributions made at stakeholder events. There’s no explicit reference to stakeholder views in any of the Goal chapters and aside from the section on ‘a shared endeavour’, stakeholders aren’t meaningfully reflected in the report at all. Indeed, the Government makes a big pitch on its stakeholder engagement – ‘over 380 organisations were engaged’ – which belies the three days’ notice for some meetings or where the quality of engagement was so low it was meaningless.

Given the importance of stakeholders in delivering SDGs, and the commitment to future stakeholder engagement, this feels like a lost opportunity to present a more complete picture of UK progress on the SDGs by reflecting our perspectives.

UKSSD’s advocacy group is carrying out further analysis and will publish this later in the year.