Almost exactly mid-way in writing his How to Run a Government So That Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t Go Crazy (2015), Michael Barber put down his pen and savoured a moment. He then wrote the passage where he describes the scrambling around 10 Downing in anticipation of the first campaign for re-election in 2001. The Blair government was looking for new ideas and new solutions, and the issue of crime made it onto the agenda.
Barber, the father of the Deliverology approach to ensuring government performance, recalled the frantic search for new approaches and knew he needed to get out of it in order to focus. It was then that he asked to carve out of the Prime Minister’s Office the Delivery Unit that made his fame. The idea of that institutional novelty was precisely to get out of the hubbub, to achieve routine: “routine reporting, routine data collection, routine monitoring, routine problem-solving” as he put it. It was the prize he reached for desperately: the idea of achieving the extraordinary “ordinary.”
Barber described the beauty of “government by routine.” It had clear priorities, a specific idea of success, careful and intelligent oversight, a reliance on hard data, a grounding in “honest conversation” that prized regular contact between any given department’s nerve endings and its decision-making centre. It was, in other words, the dream of any public sector leader. Barber depicts a government that is in such routine control that it is boring. Barber goes to some length (never boring, that) to describe the structure of this briefing notes to the PM.
Barber even says he wanted boring meetings—boring in structure but lively in content. Barber favored regular, relatively brief meetings that focused on no more than two items. He wanted candid conversation, so the number of people attending had to be kept to the minimum. There was no time or room for grandstanding or for those who triggered it. Critical to the success is the unimpeachability of the data—and those who challenged it should be chased away. What he desperately hoped for was a collaborative atmosphere, one that engendered genuine discussion on the continuous validity of objectives and outcomes and on the adjustments in policy and programs that needed to be made en route. Barber called these meetings to “stocktake.” They were designed to be part of the ordinary, yet they were critical to ensuring that state of affairs. These meetings were the parents, not the offspring, of his approach to improving government’s ability to deliver. Well-conceived, well led, these meetings become the battlefield for anticipated problems, not for current crises. Heaven happens in ordinary time.
As the government continues its journey towards applying this management ideal, this month’s Canadian Government Executive features three articles that tackle the challenge of “deliverology” from three distinct angles. Warren McCay and Courtney Brown examine the contribution internal audit can make in moving the bureaucracy towards better data collection. Jessica Sultan and Claude Miville-Dechêne, for their part, look at how the procurement process can contribute an extra layer of vigilance. Craig Szelestowski contributes five distinct strategies that can be borrowed from the very influential “Lean Movement” to lead the way towards the Holy Grail of “ordinariness.”
That ordinariness can be shoved to nothing but a wishful thought by a cyber-attack. In this issue, two articles examine strategies in dealing with material no one sees. John Weigelt of Microsoft Canada describes how a few governments in his experience have strategized to make use of the “cloud” in linking its systems and data—two vital ingredients in making the state hum. I take a look at the Government of Canada’s rampart against cyber-crime, the Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre and what it has done over the past five years in ensuring that the Internet on which we all depend maintains its integrity. It has become, after all, one of the vital ingredients of routine in this country.
See you on 5 October at the CGE Conference on Deliverology in Ottawa. Click here to learn more.