Deliverology: Lessons and Prospects - Canadian Government Executive
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March 17, 2016

Deliverology: Lessons and Prospects

Many elements of deliverology should be familiar to Canadian government executives. It begins with the sponsorship of the Prime Minister to drive change in the public service and the government’s delivery system. It identifies delivery chains and potential bottlenecks. The early version of the Trudeau model suggests a more de-concentrated model, potentially with several units associated with major national priorities. We have yet to learn about the size, budget and planned trajectory for instituting the new capabilities.

The Trudeau Liberal platform of instituting “delivery” capabilities has garnered considerable interest in the national media. Suddenly the spotlight focused on Michael Barber, creator of the UK’s Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) in Blair’s second government. The PMDU was established because Blair had come to believe that too many ministers and departments failed to follow through on government commitments. Barber spread the deliverology brand with his book Instruction to Deliver (2007) and Deliverology 101 (2011). He has consulted with McKinsey, and co-leads the Centre for Public Impact.

The Trudeau team indicated its interest in adopting a variation of Barber’s approach just after the election. Prime Minister Trudeau invited Mr. Barber to speak to the January cabinet retreat in New Brunswick. Barber also spoke to the public service executive community in Ottawa, highlighting how his approach had been applied to public organizations in Ontario, the USA and elsewhere in the world. The Privy Council Office appointed a Deputy Secretary for Results and Delivery in early January.

This concerted effort invites several questions: What is unique about this particular approach to improving policy and program delivery? How will these methods, imported by an Ontario brains trust, fit with Ottawa’s public service culture? What might be the prospects for success and larger implications for the Public Service of Canada?

First, it is important to acknowledge that there are many approaches to redesigning and implementing new policy and service delivery models such as league tables, Gateway Reviews, program reviews, LEAN, transparency and open government initiatives. These are only the latest to join a stream of reform movements with their acronyms which have regularly emerged over the decades. Even with cabinet implementation and delivery units there is considerable variation in their size and mandate, and how deeply they are involved in upstream and downstream design and problem-solving.

Many elements of deliverology should be familiar to Canadian government executives. It begins with the sponsorship of the Prime Minister to drive change in the public service and the government’s delivery system. It identifies delivery chains and potential bottlenecks. There is a strong performance focus in not only designing and implementing new policies and programs, but also securing and using real-time data and analytic techniques to set stretch targets, monitor progress, and problem-solve. It carries the conviction of holistic private sector transformation strategies (think of Taylor or Deming). Its branding includes not only particular monitoring and problem-solving techniques but also the larger process of change. What made the PMDU approach different was that it was an integrated system designed for a government context, with short-term repertoires and tactics for building momentum and dealing with stakeholders, including the Prime Minister, and calling for perseverance and focus over the longer term.

Deliverology works better under certain conditions:

  • when policy goals and strategic objectives are clear;
  • when a strong theory of action exists showing how inputs and instruments are connected to client experience and desired outcomes;
  • when the authorities and instruments essential for success are controlled by one government;
  • when good and pertinent data is available to inform monitoring of progress, outputs and outcomes; and
  • when an initiative remains a top priority of the Prime Minister and the government.

An express purpose of Barber’s delivery model is to test for and, if necessary, flesh out goals, objectives, and a theory of action. It identifies strategies for identifying pertinent data and offers smart repertoires for engaging the Prime Minister.

There are legitimate questions about how such capabilities, led by outsiders, might fit with Ottawa’s public service culture and complicated systems. First, experience shows that cabinet implementation and delivery units must be focused and avoid overlap with other central agencies such as PCO and TBS. They must be insulated from normal ‘transactions’ and ‘fire-fighting’ (even if they create some of their own), not involved in priority-setting and budget-making, and ensure other central actors become allies.

Second, the UK government has regularly relied on amassing expertise from inside and outside government at the centre in support of major reform initiatives (e.g. the Rayner Scrutinies, the Next Steps initiatives), whereas Ottawa has relied heavily on its own public service talent for exercises such as the June 1993 restructuring, 1994 program review, and subsequent initiatives. The introduction of Ottawa’s new delivery capability comes at the behest of advisors and leadership with little federal experience.

Finally, Barber’s approach advocates considerable internal and external transparency. The PMDU focused on enabling, monitoring, and anchoring change but nevertheless providing reports to the Prime Minister and to ministers and their departments, and sharing of information on progress with key stakeholders and the public. Ottawa has made recent progress on this front, but it is not yet second nature to the government and public service. If the Trudeau government adopts the full Barber model, it will be introducing a new level of transparency into the system.

By design, deliverology focuses on fewer rather than more priorities. Barber recommends identifying 15-20 priorities, so which priorities become of the focus of Ottawa’s new delivery capability will be critical. This means picking a few initiatives where the government can and needs to make and demonstrate progress – either turning around or reinventing policy in areas of central importance to the government. It implies picking initiatives more fully within the ambit of federal government responsibilities, which would reduce the need to negotiate with provincial and local governments, and have Ottawa’s performance compromised by other actors. Given the new government’s wide range of commitments and promises, this will indeed be a challenge.

The Barber model contains a narrative and practice of pushing out more responsibility for design and delivery to departments, while retaining control in a central unit and staff focused on priority policies. The early version of the Trudeau model suggests a more de-concentrated model, potentially with several units associated with major national priorities. We have yet to learn about the size, budget and planned trajectory for instituting the new capabilities. The stakes will be high – as it was for the Parliamentary Budget Office – with a need for astute leadership and assembling of extraordinary multi-faced talent in PCO’s Results and Delivery Unit, and perhaps beyond. It probably does not matter that its leaders have not run large departments or analytic shops in the Canadian Public Service. From afar, my sense is that the Trudeau government will not long countenance resistance, and it will promote executives to DM and ADM positions keen to work in new ways.

The Trudeau’s introduction of deliverology might be a wedge for more widespread change and shifting the culture of the Canadian Public Service. Barber’s approach calls for initially having a selective but intensive focus on delivery priorities, building momentum to take on more priorities and to have more ministers and departments build deliverology into their repertoires. One could imagine that, in the context of generational change underway in Ottawa, this might lead to a modified version of what the public service is about and how it can serve any government. Indeed, Barber’s approach is not alien to how management initiatives have been rolled out in Ottawa: central agencies have increasingly relied on a ‘vanguard’ approach, where willing departments lead the way, diffusing learning and expertise to departments less able to initially leap-in. The difference with the delivery initiative is that the vanguard departments will not volunteer but instead be designated according to the top priorities of the government and where key irritants exist.

Concern has already emerged about whether the early model favoured by Trudeau’s advisors (which, in fairness, is a distributed model) will be a new way of centralizing power, reinforcing previous trends in Canadian governance. Others worry about whether this is another layer a top the already convoluted oversight and reporting in the Government of Canada. In this view the delivery reforms are only the latest in a long series of government-wide initiatives, serving short-term political needs, demonstrating the responsiveness federal public service leadership, and moving along the goal-posts a bit, but not fundamentally changing broader trends and institutional trajectories. Such views, however, downplay that a critical purpose of delivery units is to identify blockages and issues, and to address problems and remove barriers, much like what was done for the previous government’s Economic Action Plan but simultaneously on several different fronts.

Much will depend on the initial selection of delivery priorities and performance with the first wave of initiatives. As Ottawa’s version of deliverology proceeds, the government will be judged about how transparent it is about progress and the degree to which it has developed allies and won over ministers and departments eager to protect programs. It will be interesting to see how assiduously the Prime Minister maintains his commitment to deliverology and evinces interest in the details of delivery, and whether he incorporates it as part of his governments’ overall brand.
Evert Lindquist is Professor, School of Public Administration, University of Victoria, Editor of Canadian Public Administration, and edited a special issue of the Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis (Dec 2006) on cabinet implementation units.

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