19 January 2016

At a time when departments across Whitehall are setting up implementation units to track the delivery of key policy priorities, the British Government is also sponsoring these units overseas. Jen Gold hears how the Department for International Development (DFID) is working with the Punjab Government in Pakistan to achieve dramatic results in education and health, and asks what lessons Whitehall might learn.

Delivery units have become a truly global phenomenon. They now operate in over 20 jurisdictions, spanning six continents. And this trend shows no sign of letting up. In September 2015, New South Wales, Australia became the latest member of the club, while Canada’s newly-elected federal government is now looking to import the model.

But, as we pointed out in our International Delivery report, much of the rapid take-up of these units, and the methodologies they use, is down to growing interest from the international development industry. More and more institutions – ranging from charitable foundations and national aid agencies to international organisations and consultancies – are offering technical support. Where, traditionally, efforts to strengthen governance have focused on transparency initiatives such as election monitoring, much more emphasis is now being placed on the need to reinforce delivery mechanisms in government. For DFID – who are currently sponsoring units in the Punjab (Pakistan), Tanzania, and Sierra Leone – there is undoubtedly the added incentive of being able to demonstrate value for money in aid spending.

Working with the Punjab Government

At an event hosted by the Institute for Government in December 2015, the Chief Minister of the Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, set out the striking results of reforms in education and health that have been guided by a series of delivery roadmaps and tracked by the province’s Special Monitoring Unit. Primary school enrolment, for instance, has increased from 84.8% to 90.4% since 2011 – equating to an additional one million children in the school system. In healthcare, meanwhile, vaccinator attendance has soared from 22% to over 90%.

Shahbaz Sharif was joined in conversation at the event by Sir Michael Barber, whose Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (under Tony Blair) has served as a model that others, including the Punjab, continue to replicate. Barber now advises governments around the world and is a DFID special representative in the Punjab.

Of course, the delivery unit model has been modified wherever it’s been adopted. But the Punjab unit does share certain core characteristics with similar units elsewhere:

  • Routine data collection: Schools receive monthly visits from a monitoring and evaluation team. They’re tasked with gathering statistics on enrolment, teacher attendance, facilities, and learner outcomes and then feeding this back to the Special Monitoring Unit. The same method has been applied in health, with the province’s 122 hospitals receiving regular inspections.
  • Data interrogation: The Special Monitoring Unit analyses the data to identify trends, focusing on questions directly linked to the province’s reform agenda. The Chief Minister himself conducts regular 'stocktakes' with officials every two months and undertakes unannounced spot checks across the province to scrutinise the validity of the data being collected.
  • Presenting data analysis in a compelling way: Delivery units rely on a political champion, who is prepared to set a clear direction and hold officials to account. But, as Michael Barber pointed out, “Chief Ministers or Prime Ministers are busy people. They don’t want to look at scatter graphs and distributions and lots of dots on a page.” Effective data visualisation is key to telling a compelling story. Both Barber and the Chief Minister recalled the power of a simple bar chart in a presentation on the province’s health roadmap. It compared infant mortality in the Punjab, Pakistan (88 per 1,000 live births) to that of the Punjab in India (37 per 1,000) and Sri Lanka (8 per 1,000). The Chief Minister turned to his health officials and said, “How do you sleep at night?”

What lessons are there for Whitehall?

1. How technology can enable real-time data collection: The widespread use of smart monitoring systems in the Punjab has enabled data to be collected and collated at a speed most Whitehall delivery units can’t match. Smartphones and tablets are being used in the field to collect and geo-tag data, which in turn is fed into a centralised dashboard. This reporting mechanism enables automatic SMS messages to be sent out to under-performing institutions and 'stocktake' meetings, to consider performance trends in real time.

2. The potential benefits of transparency: Whitehall’s five departmental units and the central Implementation Unit in the Cabinet Office are viewed as mechanisms for driving internal transparency – helping secretaries of state and the Prime Minister track the progress being made on the delivery of their policy priorities. But external transparency can be equally powerful. Following in the footsteps of jurisdictions such as Maryland and Chile, the Government of the Punjab is putting its performance data online. This enables citizens – especially parents and school councils – to point to inconsistencies in the data or identify misreporting by monitoring officers.

3. A wealth of expertise to be tapped into: DFID has built up a wealth of expertise in setting up and supporting delivery units abroad. But, as new units emerge across Whitehall, this in turn raises questions about whether enough learning is being shared between departments.  

Further information

Watch the event video here:


Dear Dr. Jen Gold: I could not find time to read your work earlier, although I am very familiar with this unit in Punjab. A similar unit (Prime Minister's Delivery Unit) was established in the Prime Minister's Office in Islamabad, Pakistan. (I have been its team leader since inception) I have written a brief description of it below, which you may find useful. For any questions, I am standing by. Awais (awsiraj@hotmail.com)

The Mavericks of Prime Minister

To bring a paradigm shift in the standard of governance and to ensure timely implementation of key development projects based on the best practices of the developed countries like the UK, Malaysia, etc. in key areas of governance and delivery with efficiency, Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif formed Pakistan's first Prime Minister's Delivery Unit (PMDU) which started functioning from April 30, 2015.

For the first time in country's history a special unit has been created in the Prime Minister's Office comprising of top flight professionals from the private sector, personally tasked by the Prime Minister to monitor the progress of the strategic projects, identify delays (if any) and suggest mitigating measures to bring the projects within targeted timelines. Using the executive power and patronization of the Prime Minister, PMDU supports concerned ministries in effective implementation of energy, infrastructure and CPEC projects which will have a lasting impact on long term economic sustainability and competitiveness of Pakistan.

Through PMDU the Prime Minister monitors the performance of ministries on a weekly basis. This improves inter-ministerial coordination thus ensuring their timely response on important public service delivery matters. PMDU works in close unison with concerned Ministries.

The small team has made a big impact. A lean structure with five empowered professionals (and zero staff), the unit has developed a culture of equality, common intent and purpose, without any distinction of work or hierarchy in the Prime Minister’s Office. In little more than three years, it’s performance and contribution to the strategic agenda of Prime Minister is phenomenal. It has accelerated and facilitated the financial close and operations of coal fired energy projects like Port Qasim, Sahiwal and Thar-Engro. In the hydel energy, it has put Karot, Suki Kinari, Tarbela 4, Neelam Jhelum, Golan Gol, Dasu Diamer Bhasha projects on track. For infrastructure, it worked closely with Ministry of Communication and National Highway Authority to ensure speedier execution of negotiations and decisions on multi billion dollar projects of motorways and highways. Working closely with NTDC and DISCO’s it has given valuable input to provide connectivity and evacuation of thousands of megawatts of electricity that will be generated in the coming years. Overall, it has monitored and accelerated project worth more than 90 billion USD in a developing country like Pakistan.

From its onset, PMDU strongly suggested LNG as the only solution to the emergency situation prevailing in the power sector. While the government worked aggressively on the power plants at Bhikki, Balloki and Haveli Bahadur Shah, PMDU pointed out and worked aggressively with Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources to rectify a fragile link of gas pipelines and put it on track to synchronize and dove-tail with the start of operations of power plants.

PMDU has been actively involved in Performance Contracting whereby it worked with the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms to prepare performance contracts of 11 ministries ready for signing between Prime Minister and respective Ministers. Its Performance Audit of Utility Stores Corporation in 2015 brought a strategic change in its output service towards citizens. PMDU also helped MoPDR to prepare scorecard and measurement systems for Vision 2025 and Sustainable Development Goals.

The team that usually remains behind the scenes, runs the last mile for the Prime Minister. Luckily, it is not subject to the bureaucratic process and knows no boundaries for its work. It is also in close contact with the international counterparts and project companies engaged in strategic projects across Pakistan. PMDU remains updated in real time and on top of every issue assigned to them securing and triangulating information at all times to make prudent interventions where necessary.

The team had plans to launch a live dashboard for real time tracking of projects status by the Prime Minister as well as other stakeholders. It has also been assigned to improve the ranking of Pakistan in World Bank Ease of Doing Business and Global Competitiveness Index. It is hoped that this team will remain a continuous feature of the Prime Minister’s working style as these professional men and women behind the scene have significant role the positive outlay and progressive performance of government, now becoming ever more evident.