17 May 2017

Delivery units are a Blair-era innovation that have now become a global phenomenon. But Dr Jen Gold will tell the World Bank's Governance Forum this week that if delivery units are to live up to the hype, governments need to learn from those that have failed.

As political leaders around the world grapple with sluggish economies and voter disenfranchisement, many have turned to delivery units as a means of getting things done. Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, set up a delivery unit in 2016 to restore trust in public institutions, while Sierra Leone’s President, Ernest Bai Koroma, set up a new unit in 2015 to revive the economy after the Ebola epidemic.

Originating in the UK in 2001, delivery units are small teams that enable political leaders to understand whether desired results are materialising on the ground. They gather and analyse a constant stream of performance data, and they investigate and intervene if key policies and programmes appear to be stalling.

Axed units

Such units now exist in some 25 countries, with many more operating at regional and local levels. But while the overall number continues to rise, advocates should take note of a parallel (and so far unreported) trend in units closing. Many that were once announced with great fanfare have quietly been axed, including ones in Australia, Chile and, closer to home, in Wales. There are also a handful of other units that are limping on without the sense of momentum that they once enjoyed.

Our report, Tracking delivery, traces what’s happened to delivery units over the past 16 years. It shows that governments can pay a heavy price for ineffective units, and not simply in terms of wasted resources. When units lose influence, for instance, their continued existence can cultivate a false sense of security that projects and programmes are being properly monitored, sometimes with devastating results.

But simply abolishing these units isn’t necessarily the answer either. Many governments have found that they fulfil an otherwise unmet need. The UK Government axed the original Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) in 2010. The minister responsible for this decision, Oliver Letwin, has since told the IfG that it was “a terrible mistake”. In 2012 the unit was reinstated with an amended set-up.

Warning signs

If delivery units are to achieve impact, it is vital that lessons on what works are shared. Drawing on the experiences of past units, Tracking delivery sets out the warning signs that governments would do well to heed:

1. Limited commitment from a political sponsor

Delivery units derive their influence from concerted political sponsorship, not some formal institutional structure. Units are in trouble if a political sponsor limits direct access, routinely cancels or reschedules review meetings, or delegates contact to a more junior official.

2. A poorly defined remit

Units quickly become unstuck if they take on responsibility for tracking too many priorities or they have competing responsibilities that are hard to reconcile (e.g. policy design and tracking delivery).

3. Operating in a satellite location

Attempting to operate in a satellite location (away from a political sponsor and the main cluster of departments) makes daily interactions with the rest of government incredibly difficult and creates the impression that the unit has limited political traction.

4. A staffing model that hinders operations

Top-heavy organisational structures constrain day-to-day operations and high levels of turnover mean critical relationships have to be rebuilt continually.

5. A lack of cross-government capacity and buy-in

It is easy for central delivery units to find themselves operating in isolation – either because they’ve struggled to build sufficient capacity within the wider delivery system to support the unit’s work (e.g. data collection) or there is no leadership coalition outside of the unit that takes any ownership of the government’s results agenda.

6. No routines in place to review and refresh operations

Without routines in place to both review the continuing effectiveness of their operations and generate improvement ideas, units will struggle to retain influence as external circumstances change.

If delivery units are to fulfil their potential as a means of achieving results in today’s challenging climate, there is a wealth of collective experience they need to tap into.

Comments

Has IfG studied the recent NAO report 'Investigation into the South East Flexible Ticketing Programme'? Published April 20, 2017. I had a short contract with that project in its early stages. Did not press for the contract to be renewed...

I had never heard of Delivery Units before today. However, as an economic systems designer, the desired policy outcomes have to be designed as an output of the system under consideration, i.e. the education system, healthcare system etc. etc.

As someone who has almost no experience of delivery units but lots of other strategic change programmes, successful and unsuccessful, these points strike me as almost as applicable to most small units trying to drive strategic change across large organisations notionally under the authority of a senior leader, whether that's cost-saving, culture change, introducing a new methodology, or others. I'd say this is especially true of points 1-3 and 5 above. Thanks for it.