How to get things done in government

Making the change from ‘government by spasm’ to ‘government by routine'

Michael Barber

Government and governance | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

30 October 2015

A focus on delivery based on routines, which uses a good regular flow of data to inform decisions, is a must for governments wishing to deliver on their ambitious goals, writes Sir Michael Barber.

There is no shortage of writing to be found on almost every aspect of government – campaigns and elections, policy and policy-making, developing ideas and shaping public opinion – but there is one area that has remained largely unexamined. Delivery, implementation, or simply how to get things done in government, is too often left out of the conversation. We know how to generate policy, but we are not very good at actually making it happen. This is a problem.

Historically, delivery has proven elusive. Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1625 until his execution in 1649 – rarely considered one of royalty’s great successes – nevertheless had a moment of deep insight when he realised ‘there’s more to the doing than bidding it be done’.

Likewise Victor Chernoyrdin, the prime minister of Russia in the 1990s after communism had collapsed, brilliantly encapsulated the frustration of government: ‘we tried to do better, but everything turned out as usual’. This frustration is still felt by many policymakers today.

Those who have worked in government will be instantly familiar with the characteristics of  “government by spasm”, which capture the daily experience of elected officials and government workers the world over. Spasm is the result of focusing on what but not how — of paying short shrift to establishing exactly how promises will be delivered.

All is not lost, however: governments should, and indeed can, be efficient and effective, resulting in “government by routine’’. The gap between the two is what the science of delivery aims to address.

So how do these two models play out? In government by spasm, everything matters. In government by routine, however, there are clear priorities. Instead of vague aspiration, think specification of success, instead of crisis management, think routine oversight. In governments run by routine, guesswork is replaced by data-informed decisions, post-hoc evaluations give way to real time-data, hyperactivity becomes a persistent drive, and mere announcements become actual change on the ground.

Becoming a government by routine is as simple as the name suggests – the focus is entirely on establishing routine, creating good habits and ridding yourself of bad ones. It’s not glamorous, and many readers may think it boring. But it works. Exciting initiatives will come…but then they just as surely go. Routines stay put, slowly grinding away, delivering on the promises made by leaders. Delivery is not a matter of finding some magic silver bullet; it is a matter of tenacity and hard work.

Take routine meetings, for example. It would be difficult to choose a less inspiring combination of two words. And yet regular stocktakes are a crucial aspect of delivery.

Let me give a routine example from my work in Punjab. Following the May 2013 election, the Chief Minister – Shahbaz Sharif – and his party were committed to the introduction of District Education Authorities, creating a new tier of government responsible for education in each of the 36 districts. It made good sense to decentralise this authority in the context of Punjab, a province of 100 million people. This plan, however, was in conflict with the Education Roadmap, also supported by the Chief Minister, which depended on the province keeping hold of certain responsibilities centrally (such as data collection and setting overall strategy and targets). These were two good ideas in tension with each other, and without routine meetings these would have been developed separately, moved towards realisation independently and eventually have collided.

With stocktakes, however, this conflict was surfaced early, we were able to refine our collective thinking about how the two ideas might be integrated, and a small working group was set the task of making this happen. Both ideas will be more effective as a result.

Based on this experience, and countless others, I have come to believe that a focus on delivery based on routines – and always using a good regular flow of data to inform decisions – is absolutely necessary for governments wishing to deliver on their ambitious goals.

Fortunately, a movement is starting to emerge. In the past decade or so, partly in response to the establishment of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) which I founded in former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s second term (2001 – 2005), delivery units have sprung up in many countries at different levels – Sierra Leone’s President Koroma has used a delivery approach to drive health outcomes, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak created Pemandu (Malay for ‘driver’) on the PMDU model, and Martin O’Malley, governor of the state of Maryland in the United States, followed a similar path. Melanie Walker, head of the President’s Delivery Unit at the World Bank, claims to have counted 58 delivery units or their equivalent around the world.

The science of delivery will never be able to account for everything; delivery will always contain an element of political art as well. But properly applied, delivery routines can lead to improved outcomes across critical services such as policing, health and education. And when governments operate by routine rather than spasm and truly deliver, the value realised from taxpayers’ money is substantially increased, citizens’ confidence in their elected officials rises, and the world is made a better place.

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