08 Jul 2007: The Observer - Page 8 - (790 words)
Business & Media: Business: Opinion:
ONE OF THE innovations that Gordon Brown inherits from Tony Blair is the Prime Minister's delivery unit (PMDU) at Number 10. To the uninitiated that may not sound interesting, but governments around the world have leapt on the experiment with alacrity.
It's not hard to see the appeal. The delivery unit - a small performance-management unit at the heart of government - offers the promise of driving public-service improvement from the centre, acting as a transmission mechanism between the motor of prime ministerial edict and the wheels of the individual departments.
The story of the PMDU is fluently recounted in Sir Michael Barber's new book, Instruction to Deliver. Barber, who set it up and ran it from 2001 to 2005, was Blair's 'Mr Targets', the enforcer of the government's, but particularly the Prime Minister's, priorities during his second term, extending to the railways, hospital waiting times, street crime and other areas the methods he had previously used as a special adviser at the education department to drive through improvements in literacy and GCSE results.
It's an instructive narrative, if not always in the way Barber intends. A loyal Blairite, he is eloquent on the frustrations of an impatient government which has, surely correctly, identified public-sector productivity as the defining issue of domestic politics. The recalcitrance of the professions, the venom of the media and the languid wordiness of the civil service are givens. He vigorously defends the target regime and its achievements - illustrated, true to caricature, by a series of Powerpoint bar charts. The usual suspects (rising expectations, time lags, the media - natch) are evoked to explain why we aren't suitably grateful for the results.
Barber's team of ferociously bright and focused young things undoubtedly provided a salutary jolt to a system in which delivery was secondary and a job in execution as welcome as a stint in the salt mines.
Barber is proud of the fact that when asked in 2005 if the unit should be abolished, initially suspicious departments all voted to keep it. Yet the book raises more questions than answers. Barber's final plea for a fully-fledged Prime Minister's department to strengthen the central delivery chain still further seems an unlikely way forward, at least on its own. On Barber's own estimation, the four-year treatment administered by the PDMU has only raised the standards of the public services from 'awful' to 'adequate'. More seriously, that improvement has been won at enormous cost, both financial and in terms of the collapsed morale and sometimes downright hostility of the public-service professions.
Unfortunately, that compromises the ability to achieve better things in the future. Even Barber concedes that getting from 'adequate' to 'good', let alone 'great', can't be done by central fiat. It needs to enlist hearts and minds. It also requires the ability to look at and manage the system as a whole. Barber acknowledges the need for 'whole system reform' in passing, but only in passing, and gives no hint of the extent to which the blunt, soviet-tractor-style techniques of PMDU Mark 1 (targets, carrots and sticks) are incompatible with it.
As someone said, carrots and sticks are useful for donkeys and if the object is direct and simple. Likewise targets. Of course, as Barber writes, it is important to know what success is and devise measures to track progress towards it. But it's bad faith to try to motivate people with financial incentives then complain they are self-interested and disin genuous to pretend that the unintended consequences of crude numerical targets are trivial.
Two weeks ago the Economist , a publication Barber approvingly quotes, carried a piece querying the Blair educational achievement that he oversaw. New research, it reported, suggested that improved GCSE pass rates had only been achieved by pupils taking easier subjects and the much-trumpeted improvement in 11-year-olds' literacy and numeracy was partly a reflection of being taught to the test.
As an easy solution to a complex problem, this is what targets do. It's not that they are too ambitious or can't be made to work, at least temporarily it's that optimising the parts is the enemy of the much greater returns that only system reform can deliver. Barber shrewdly notes that in many cases a 'legacy' depends not on the achievement handed on but what a successor does with it. This is the case with Blair and the PMDU (Barber has moved on to join consultants McKinsey). If Brown uses it to go beyond 'flogging the system' and institute a systems-approach delivery improvement, it will be a lasting and important one. If he doesn't, it will go the way described by a public servant in the book: 'Reforms are like London buses it really doesn't matter is you miss one because there'll be another one along in a minute.'
The Observer, 8 July 2007