Destination delivery – Canada’s new focus on results

All governments want to achieve their objectives. That’s no secret. It’s how they gain momentum, make a difference and win re-election. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to say than do. Governments worldwide have adopted diverse strategies for success, but one that has gained considerable traction in recent years is “delivery”.

First pioneered by Sir Michael Barber under former UK prime minister Tony Blair, it has since been picked up and deployed by state governments such as Punjab in Pakistan and Maryland in the US and countries as far afield as Colombia and Malaysia. Now Canada can be added to the list, with responsibility for its implementation falling to Matthew Mendelsohn, a think-tank founder and former deputy minister in the province of Ontario.

His appointment last December to lead a new secretariat for Results and Delivery akin to a delivery unit places him at the heart of decision-making in Ottawa, and there is no doubt he is relishing the task. “We are trying to do three very simple things,” he reveals. “Firstly, be really clear about the policy objectives that are being pursued; secondly, be rigorous in designing the appropriate delivery plan; and thirdly, be relentless in measuring and assessing results, recalibrating and adjusting if progress isn”t as strong as one would like.”

A solid base

It’s worth pointing out that trust in the Canadian government is currently the highest it has been in decades a great foundation for Prime Minister Trudeau and his team to work from. But, equally, this trust will only endure if policymakers deliver the services that citizens deserve and expect. Unfortunately, as Mendelsohn points out, the current organisation of government is hardly ideal.

“Many of the reporting structures are around activities rather than outcomes,” he observes. “Governments do lots of different things. Some of it is issues management, some is announcements, but a lot is activity. And what the prime minister has been focusing on has been shifting the culture as much as possible from a culture of activities to a culture of outcomes and impact.”

Mendelsohn, who enjoys close links with the PM (it’s always useful to have the boss onside when embarking on a period of change) goes on to say that implementation is as essential as policy. “Governments, for a whole series of reasons, often lose sight of the initial programme objectives and are often not properly organised to relentlessly measure whether they are having the desired impact on citizens,” he says. “It is crucial that we don”t just spend time getting the policy right, but that we also get the implementation, measurement and evaluation right as well.”

Delivering on delivery

Much like delivery units elsewhere, Mendelsohn’s team is tasked with tracking departmental performance: reporting to cabinet ministers and the prime minister on progress and any issues that might hinder the implementation of key campaign pledges. In practice, this involves establishing clear targets and metrics, holding regular stock takes, and taking action to keep delivery on target.  And he is clear that his team will have no hiding place for underperformance. “The Results and Delivery unit wants to hold ourselves accountable in the same way that departments are held accountable,”he says.  “We will have our own results plans and talk about them publicly and look to where we can improve our own performance in supporting the government”s delivery.”

Mendelsohn, whose previous role was founding director of Toronto”s Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, a public policy think-tank, also believes that data and digital technology, and how the government approaches evidence, will be critical in the years ahead.

“Governments and organisations around the world are looking at how they improve their ability to use evidence in real time to actually be a tool of management decision-making,” he says. “Most organisations outside government that are successful use evidence and data to make decisions more effective, and understand which business model is working and which isn’t. But day to day in government, the ability to distinguish between a programme that is having a hugely positive impact and one that is having a moderate impact is more difficult. The way we are set up means we don’t usually have the capacity to do this very well.”

He believes that it comes down to more than just investing in data and evidence adopting the right mindset, too, is critical. “There needs to be a political will to make decisions based on the evidence,” he explains. “Clearly, there are all kinds of considerations that go into any kind of decision-making, but putting evidence at the heart of it structures the political conversations about what is the right path forward.”

Interestingly, Mendelsohn says that the recipients of government services i.e., Canadians themselves will also have a role to play, one that requires them to shift their expectations and understanding around what policymakers are seeking to do.

“It requires authentic conversations with citizens, and there is an open question about whether we are all collectively ready for that,”he acknowledges. “This government and the prime minister believe that we are ready for open dialogue where mistakes can be acknowledged. This is because sometimes things don”t work, but failure is about learning for next time. Successful organisations recognise this and the question is can we, as a democratic community, have that type of sophisticated conversation and accept that governments are innovating and taking risks and being honest when things don”t go as well as we would like?”

An early example of this new approach can be seen in the response to the government”s drive to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees. The process has taken longer than originally expected, but Mendelsohn says that, because ministers were honest and transparent about having to adjust their approach, the public continued to be supportive. “The evidence suggests that Canadians respected the goal, recognised that the government was being ambitious, recognised that the government acknowledged that it wasn’t able to move as quickly as possible but were comfortable with that,” he says.

Onwards and upwards

Of course, this is only one example, but Mendelsohn believes that it bodes well for addressing more deep-rooted issues such as climate change, the wellbeing of indigenous people, and growing the middle class.  “You can often identify early indicators that suggest progress,” he says. “For example, climate change is a long-term issue, but today we can see how many vehicles are electric.”

Now, though, his focus remains very much on the present gearing up for the daily grind of incremental gains that underpin the successful delivery of any government programme or project. He remains convinced that Canada’s current course is one that will lead to real change and real improvements in the lives of its citizens. “I am very excited to be a part of this process because if we can get this right we will be in a really good place to tackle some of the most serious and challenging problems Canada is facing,” he concludes.

 

FURTHER READING

  • Briefing bulletin: The science of delivering results: past, present and future. Governments exist to deliver results for their citizens but when most political leaders arrive in office, they find that delivering results is the hardest part of the job. Here, the Centre for Public Impact and Delivery Associates explain how government leaders around the world have come to understand this challenge better and to develop a solution
  • Voices of delivery. What do government delivery leaders really think about achieving results? How do they seek to implement policy proposals? Read on to discover about the secrets of their approach
  • Three golden rules for delivery. Ray Shostak has a crystal-clear understanding of how a government can increase its impact on delivery. Here, he sets out lessons gleaned from his stint leading the UK delivery unit, extensive experiences on the frontline, and working with governments across the globe
  • The time to deliver is now. Few government careers have been as focused on delivery as Sir Michael Barber’s. Here, he tells Adrian Brown about lessons learned and challenges ahead
  • Data to delivery. Former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor, Martin O’Malley, tells us about a new approach to governance and delivery
  • If ‘delivery’ is such a good idea, why doesn’t everyone care? A renewed focus on the mechanics of delivery makes sense for governments around the world, says Donald Kettl. But more needs to be done to win over sceptics
  • Driving the delivery of development. Overseeing the World Bank Group”s delivery unit is more than just keeping score, explains Melanie Walker