20 March 2015

Earlier this week, Sir Michael Barber – former head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit – spoke at the Institute for Government about his new book, How to Run A Government: So that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don't Go Crazy. The event, organised by the IfG and the new Centre for Public Impact (which Barber co-chairs), also featured Public Accounts Committee chair, Margaret Hodge, and IfG director Peter Riddell.

Yes, we’ve gone a bit Buzzfeed. As Barber himself did in the Independent on Sunday.

It was ‘not exactly a launch’ – that happened at the LSE earlier this week – but rather ‘further discussion’ about the book, according to Peter Riddell. But the clear, succinct lessons Barber outlined about delivery or implementation of government priorities also lend themselves to a series of Buzzfeed-style lists.

Barber opened with the 6 Defining Features of the PMDU Model:

  1. Set clear priorities with measurable goals
  2. Establish a dedicated unit focused on getting those things done
  3. Use data and trajectories to drive progress
  4. Build routines around those priorities (such as stocktake meetings, or monthly notes to the Prime Minister)
  5. Help with problem-solving
  6. Persistence – stick with those priorities despite the temptations in government to shift the agenda.

Michael Barber

Michael Barber speaking at the event

These will be familiar to readers of the IfG’s reports on policy implementation.

He then outlined various things he had learned about delivery – from reflecting on his own experience, from history and from elsewhere in the world. His ‘5 Reflections From Personal Experience’ were:

  1. Effective government is really important – having been taken for granted for so long, the global financial crisis and the collapse of governments in Libya and across the Middle East remind us it is ‘one of the big moral issues of our time’.
  2. There is a legitimate political debate about big government versus small government – it is a political choice whether you follow Sweden or Singapore or something in between, but the effectiveness of that government is profoundly important.
  3. PMDU became very good at focusing on outcomes, but did not focus enough on productivity – for example, health reforms were delivered successfully but with a 7-8% growth in budgets. Could it have been done more efficiently?
  4. ‘Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable’ (Dwight D. Eisenhower) – PMDU focused too much on the former in its first year, but ultimately plans in glossy covers left on a shelf are not important.
  5. Culture change is difficult in large organisations – doctors used to complain to Barber about targets but now complain at the passing of a golden age. Shifting to a focus on delivery in the Civil Service is a current example (and a debate that has recently played out at the Institute).

Barber’s lessons from history – people didn’t think of it as ‘delivery’, but it was – included a reference to Calvin Coolidge, US President from 1923-29. Coolidge was focused on cutting the budget, cutting the taxes and eliminating the deficit, spending Friday afternoons with his budget director cutting line by line. It also elicited ‘3 Unexpected Stories About Calvin Coolidge’:

  1. Under Coolidge’s administration, civil servants could only get a new pencil if they could produce a stub of the previous one under half an inch long (Barber).
  2. A woman once told the famously taciturn Coolidge that she was part of a bet to make him say more than three words. He replied, ‘you lose’ (Peter Riddell).
  3. A deferential journalist once asked Coolidge if he had a message for the American people. ‘No’, he replied (Alan Howarth, in the audience).

As well as historical lessons, Barber had drawn ‘4 Lessons From Around the World’:

  1. The PMDU model is sound – do it well, and there’s a good chance it will improve outcomes all over the world, from school rolls in Pakistan to local government in the UK.
  2. There is no substitute for political will – whether Martin O’Malley in Maryland or the Chief Minister in the Pakistani Punjab.
  3. Sticking to priorities is hard, but you have to do it – on 9/11, Barber realised his job was to keep the rest of the show on the road.
  4. Stocktakes and other meetings have to be an honest conversation – it shouldn’t be the case, as one Punjabi official told him, that ‘you shouldn’t tell [the chief minister] what he doesn’t want to hear’.

But the wider context is different compared to the days of PMDU – here are ‘5 Things Anyone Interested In Delivery Has to Understand About How The World Has Changed’:

  1. Problems with the global economy – these have raised issues about the effectiveness and productivity of government, including its role in regulation and as a system steward.
  2. Geopolitics – it is a more uncertain, dangerous world, and it can be hard to be effective on the world stage if you haven’t got your domestic house in order (as the West has shown over the last 4-5 years).
  3. The explosion of Big Data – the availability, transparency, extent and use of data has been transformed. But – as the Institute has argued and demonstrated – one does not simply publish data and expect that to be it. You still need people to make sense of it, ask the right questions of it and present it in a compelling way to make good decisions with data.
  4. Our knowledge of ‘how to do delivery’ has increased – as the President of the World Bank Group has argued, there is ‘an emerging science of delivery’.
  5. British politics has changed – ‘doing delivery for a single, powerful, effective Prime Minister is very different for a coalition government’.

Barber’s Buzzfeed-style points may have gone viral globally, but as BCG’s Adrian Brown pointed out, it seems a paradox that its strong association with Blair in the UK led to its abolition after the 2010 election. (This was still, arguably, a less severe transition that the fate that befell Edmund Dudley – a key financial officer who helped Henry VII build a stable state, Dudley was promptly executed by Henry VIII.) Barber noted that Steve Hilton, former director of strategy to David Cameron, had called him – even though the Conservatives had rubbished targets and delivery, he asked how they had done it. It has been said that the Implementation Unit, founded in 2012, bears ‘more than a passing resemblance’ to PMDU.

The forthcoming election – or more accurately, the formation of a government after it – might provide opportunities to build a new system. Both Barber and Margaret Hodge also called for the strengthening of the centre of government – something we’ll be publishing more on next week. Barber suggested creating a Prime Minister’s department and Hodge bringing together Number 10, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office to help government better learn lessons.

As Barber wrote in the Financial Times, for all the good work ministers might do, delivery needs to be driven by the centre. Without taking some of his advice on board, such efforts may be listless.

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