“How to run a government: so that citizens benefit and taxpayers don’t go crazy” is the unlikely and unwieldy title of Sir Michael Barber’s latest iteration of the “deliverology” mythos.
I use the word “mythos” advisedly. Despite fervent hopes otherwise, there is no “science” of delivery any more than there is a “science” of policy or strategy, and likewise there is little humanity to be found. The mythical register is one that comes easily to Sir Michael, emboldened by keynotes and soundbites, and drawing on caricatures from history, literature and contemporary politics.
The opening of the final chapter, which essentially retells the Old Testament story of Joseph in Egypt using the language of modern public policy, was perhaps the moment where the absurdity of the edifice won out and tears of laughter ran down my face.
Pharaoh’s dream as interpreted by Joseph – what we would now call a Treasury Forecast – suggested that […] boom and bust had not yet ended.
[…] draw a trajectory for gathered corn, which will result in a store of at least 140% of the baseline. Then strengthen the delivery chain.
[…] He built a data system and started counting the grain (or had someone like Tony O’Connor count it for him).
Barber, chapter 7.
You get the idea.
Barber’s conception of “delivery” describes the frictionless movement of an idea between the head of a politician and the headache of a junior public servant – but the book spends as much, if not more time in ensuring that information – of a sort – is returned and aggregated to keep said politician engaged in their project. For an avowed attempt to define a science, Barber’s standards of data are low – he argues that even poor quality data is better than no data. A scientist would proceed with more care.
Structured as a manual, and cutely decorated with 57 key “rules” (largely kept under 140 characters), the text itself has a self-conscious and self-effacing wit that the TED-style “appeals to anecdote” largely undermine. Neither realpolitik nor history has the clarity required to illustrate the clean lines of deliverology – many of the stories and asides undermine themselves in their completion.
I’ve written a lot about Barber and deliverology. I was scathing about the many flaws in”Avalanche is Coming“, oddly moved by the honesty of “Instruction to Deliver“. “How to run a government” sits in between the two: some of the content of the latter presented in the style of the former (though much better referenced).
As a system of government, deliverology has on the surface an apolitical appeal. It comes across as the art of getting stuff done in the public sector – perhaps a way for a latter-day Jim Hacker to best Sir Humphrey. However, like Sir Michael’s own career, (from the CBfT delivery of his much-vaunted literacy hour onwards) much of this entails going outside the public sector entirely.
It is an expression of our current political consensus to the extent that this is hardly worthy of remark. It is a description of the big data, small government, permanent austerity neo-liberal consensus. As a myth, it defined and shaped the reality of public service long before it was expressed in this form.
It is a world-view that contains no possibility of genuine dissent. Even the idea of the “red team” – taken from military planning techniques (and Barber’s obvious delight with efficient military delivery is deeply disquieting given his Quaker upbringing.) is as a licensed cynic – a court jester improving rather than vetting an unstoppable plan.
So what can we learn about the myth and the flawed reality of public service delivery-as-a-“science”? Three select quotes give us a path in to the darker side of the deliverology mindset:
“More for less trumps investment for reform” (rule 50)
“Trust and Altruism is popular but doesn’t work (other than in unusual circumstances)” (rule 15)
“I am not recommending the content here to blatant autocracies or “extractive regimes” interested purely in enriching themselves, though of course I can’t be sure that some of them won’t read the words.” (Introduction)
Efficiency, as I am sure Sir Michael would agree, is not the same as efficacy. And “more with less” does not mean the current offer plus more, it means a shift in spending and a shift in delivery. Writing today in the FT (£), he repeats his contrast between the Blairite “investment for reform”, and the austerer coalition demand for better results at lest cost”. Not only is this economically illiterate (currently the national deficit is roughly the same as it was in ’97, growth in GDP quarter by quarter is slightly higher…), it also betrays a presumption towards smaller government and privatisation that reveal his Blairite, or indeed Thatcherite, roots.
Trust and Altruism refers to any governance regime with a preference for professional expertise over managerial oversight, and it is telling that despite a clear argument to the contrary (presented around schools in Finland) such methods are presumed never to work. Mere expertise has no answer to measurement and prescription – and again for reforming purposes we are directed to other agenda based around market narratives, making Barber possibly the only writer in history to marry the biblical story of the patriarch Joseph with the ideas of the patriarchal Sir Michael Joseph.
Finally, the point about autocracies seems like a disclaimer but hides something more problematic – delivery by control and measurement is (historically) the management methodology of the autocrat.
Barber’s career and ideas illustrate the gradual drift of the centre-ground of British politics to the authoritarian right. You should read this book, but you should read it as a cautionary tale of how far down the road of managerial public service we have come, and as a spur to consider how and where we can turn in another direction.