Ray Shostak is very clear: government doesn’t do ‘delivery’. At least, central government doesn’t do delivery.
No, in Shostak’s view, delivery of results is what is done every day by frontline teachers and nurses, firefighters, tax officials and police officers. It’s different to the task facing central government leaders, even those working in delivery units – like the one that Shostak led at the heart of the UK government for several years. “In Latin America and elsewhere, governments often forget that they don’t actually directly deliver many services to citizens,” he says. “What they do do, however, is have a big impact on the conditions for frontline workers to do their job efficiently and effectively. And this is absolutely crucial.”
From frontline to centre
Shostak – who now advises governments and multilateral organisations about how to improve public services, performance and performance-based budgeting – was no stereotypical UK civil servant. Prior to his role leading the UK Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, he served as director of public services at the Treasury, where he oversaw reforms to the government’s performance framework, including Public Service Agreements.
He also found himself working on a new performance framework for local government and a range of internal and cross-governmental projects, including reviews of childcare, youth services, housing and planning reform, the Olympics, and public service inspection. And unlike the vast majority of his colleagues, he started work as a teacher and spent the bulk of his career in the delivery of education and children’s services. These experiences have proved hugely instrumental in shaping his approach to what he believes government delivery actually entails – both strategically and on a day-to-day basis.
“Working in education, and then local and central government, made me very aware of the levers of government and what central government can and can’t do” he says. “At the end of the day, getting better results requires those working with citizens to change their behaviour. And you can’t legislate for that. But government can make a big difference to improving outcomes by understanding what is getting in the way of results – in central government or on the frontline – and ensuring they are resolved. It might include problems of competing priorities, poor understanding or skills, or ineffective processes. The more government focuses on clearing delivery problems, the better.”
More specifically, for Shostak, the first golden rule for effective delivery from a central government perspective is to ensure that government has a clear and strong performance framework. This framework sets the priorities and develops the routines for the basic building blocks of results. These routines include communicating the priorities of the administration to both the frontline and citizens, having performance agreements and plans that define roles and responsibilities as well as activity, securing and using good data, and having approaches to interventions (in government and on the frontline) that address both the technical and cultural aspects of change.
Getting better results is about people. “A lot of the debate that folks have is on the structural and technical side,” he admits, “But structural reform is a crude device for change, and policymakers need to think more about what will get lasting change in what frontline staff do and what will motivate them to change their behaviour. With this more granular focus, government will be better placed to get clarity about how to prioritise what they do – which is easier said than done.”
The second golden rule is to use the language of hard data – data that is updated often enough to enable governments to intervene if results are not forthcoming. He points out that monitoring and analysing what is happening is a prerequisite but not an end in itself. “Increasingly, countries now have good systems for gathering performance information, but often they don’t have enough focus on what they’re going to do with it,” he says. “So we need to do more about using the data to actively learn where things are going well and where they are not – and then act.”
This is even more critical at a time of fiscal restraint when there is a premium on getting better value for money for taxpayers (an issue he is also now pursuing as a non-executive member of the board of the National Audit Office). This requires those in the ‘centre of government’, including the Office of the President/Prime Minister and finance/economic ministries, to work together to develop the routines that work.
Which builds a platform for rule number three – “ensure the centre has the capacity and capability to intervene when problems arise.” This is where delivery units, which focus on results, can step in. “Keeping a focus on results is very difficult, given the 24/7 news cycle and the demand for new announcements,” says Shostak. “Once an administration sets its goals, it is helpful to have a cadre of skilled people who are able to have a single focus on results – and supporting ministries and agencies in securing them. Having good routines that regularly surface the key issues, analyse them and resolve them is critical.”
Shostak – who has spent much time assisting governments in Latin America – believes that these practices are equally applicable to policymakers in the region, even though they face unique challenges. “Every country is at a different stage in its journey of building a results orientation to managing government,” he observes. “Initiatives include finding better ways to prioritise, improving the frequency of data, developing stronger approaches to accountability, securing better links of budget to results, finding new ways of incentivising change, creating delivery units, and many more.”
He pays particular tribute to the impressive work countries in the region are doing in building their ‘centre of government’ approaches to managing for results. “So whether the priorities are poverty reduction, reducing homicides, educational achievement, getting both kids and teachers into schools, securing housing, or water supply – the lessons are the same,” he says. “Be clear about the outcomes expected, the roles and responsibilities of everyone from government to the frontline, how data can be used to isolate problems, and what routines will help in clearing the problems.”
Shostak, like the governments he works with, prioritises making results everyone’s business and a consistent, coherent and relentless focus on achieving the outcomes that matter to citizens. Finally, he reflects that, in every country he works with, they are dealing with the rising expectations that citizens have of their governments.
“I pay tribute to those in government grappling with that challenge. Will there ever be a perfect government? Unlikely – but citizens deserve that we always keep trying!”
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