There’s a clock on the wall of Michael Barber’s London office without any numbers. Instead, the word ‘Now’ is repeated twelve times around the face. It’s an appropriate timepiece for a man associated with relentlessly driving delivery in government for nearly two decades.
Urgency has been one of Barber’s watchwords since he founded the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) in 2001 at the outset of Tony Blair’s second term as Prime Minster. The PMDU story is now familiar to most people with an interest in public-sector performance, in part thanks to Barber’s own book on the topic, Instruction to Deliver. It rapidly became required reading for reform-minded politicians and public servants around the world who were looking to emulate PMDU’s success in driving results.
“It has become fashionable to think that you just need a delivery unit to be successful,” explains Barber, “but while a delivery unit is often desirable, it is certainly not sufficient or even necessary and there are examples of both successful and unsuccessful units around the world.”
Stand and deliver
What, then, is the secret? “Creating space is important. The great Spanish footballer Xavi says he’s not the strongest, fastest or most skilful player but rather he relies on his team-mates to create the space he needs to perform. Without that space he wouldn’t be able to succeed. With the PMDU I think we created a safe space that kept all the forces at bay that can distract you from delivery.”
Anyone working in government will recognise Barber’s diagnosis of the problem. “It is quite easy to be scathing from the outside, especially from the private sector, but in democracies process matters and it is important not to undermine that. Politicians need to be accountable to Parliament and the public, due process must be adhered to, and the media are ever present. It is effectively the price we pay for democracy.”
“But bureaucracies and civil servants can get into the habit of thinking the job is done if they follow due process and keep ministers happy. Ministers can fall into the trap of thinking that as long as things are ticking over, they’re getting a decent press and they’re on track for the next election – then everything’s all right. That can work for a while – giving the appearance of delivery without actually really achieving very much.”
This is the mindset that Barber has been challenging for most of his career. “I think it is important to keep reminding civil servants that they are spending hard-earned public money and so they have a moral responsibility to deliver the outcomes that people expect. If not, in the end people will ask why they are paying taxes and the whole system will be threatened.”
“Civil servants need to be supported to help them focus on impact. For example, it is important to create networks of public officials so they can learn and adapt lessons from other areas. You don’t want to have to rely on the heroic efforts of individual civil servants, you need to build it into the system. I’m talking about a network of people who know how to deliver – not a policy network.”
A moral imperative
So for Barber, driving delivery is nothing short of a moral imperative that helps to reinforce the principles of democracy – despite the fact that the processes of democracy often create the distractions from delivery in the first place. It’s the kind of apparently self-contradictory argument that Barber delights in. “There’s a similar relationship between data protection and transparency,” he notes as an aside. “People think they are in tension when actually you need both.”
Other than creating space for delivery, what else is required? “Never underestimate the power of ambition to make change happen,” he responds. “Lots of people in government defeat themselves in their own heads before they have even begun. Too many governments simply don’t believe they can really get things done.”
This is a point that Barber believes his former boss understood very well. “In his autobiography, Tony Blair says that one of the secrets of PMDU’s success was to set ambitious goals that couldn’t be achieved through business as usual. That forces people to rethink what they’re doing, and to focus on the impact that can be achieved if they do things differently.” PMDU formalised this through the publication of public goals but it was the prime ministerial commitment to reform that gave them weight. “Political leaders have to level with the people about how the world is changing and how we need to respond. Blair did that consistently.”
For Barber, ambition does not necessarily equate with transformational change. “I’m a great believer in the power of incremental gains. That means really focusing on the details to grind out improvements – and it’s often the smallest details that matter most.” Here he references David Brailsford, Team GB cycling coach at the 2012 Olympics. “Brailsford believed that by breaking down an athlete’s performance into tiny components and then making small improvements in each area, the athlete’s overall performance could be significantly enhanced. He called it ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ and it helped Team GB achieve seven golds in the velodrome. An audacious target achieved through incremental improvements.”
A global challenge
Barber left Whitehall in 2005 but he remains an influential figure both in the UK and around the world, regularly speaking with world leaders about their delivery challenges. His current position as Chief Education Adviser at Pearson allows him to focus on his primary passion of improving educational outcomes, but his enthusiasm for the broader science of public sector delivery – or ‘deliverology’ – remains undimmed and a new book updating the concept will be published next year.
“I think the basic principles we developed at PMDU are universal and remain unchanged,” he explains. “There is a lot more thinking on the ‘how’ of delivery now and lots of delivery successes and failures have been documented around the world. I think it’s fair to say that in some cases the ideas can be traced back to what we started in PMDU. For example, the whole ‘nudge’ concept is very interesting and strengthens a lot of delivery thinking. Also much new thinking reinforces delivery.”
“But it is also important to acknowledge that in many countries the public sector environment is very different now from a decade ago, so our thinking about delivery does need to evolve. Firstly, in many countries austerity has become the new normal. A decade ago in the UK we were enjoying one of the longest rises in public expenditure on record. I don’t see those times returning any time soon and the current zeitgeist is about government being smaller and more efficient. That means there’s a far greater focus on efficiency and value for money than previously. Secondly, digital technology, and in particular, the vast amount of performance data that is now available, changes our approach to metrics and measurement.”
With the time approaching ‘Now’ o’clock our conversation draws to a close and I take the opportunity to ask where the unusual clock is from. “We found someone in California who makes them and thought it was fantastic so we ordered one for the office,” Barber explains. “The irony is that it took six months to arrive, by which time we’d made one ourselves!”
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