Impossible Conversations: How to Run a Government

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The latest in our book review series is How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don't Go Crazy, by Michael Barber. The book covers Barber's experiences working with governments around the world to create "delivery units," teams responsible for mobilizing the civil service into delivering on a handful of top priorities - and the range of strategies and tactics Barber has tried to make that approach effective. Here are our joint reviews and reflections:

Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

As with any author there’s noticeable cherry-picking and rose-coloured glasses. However, I must say that I really enjoyed Barber’s book and I find the idea of refocusing government culture around delivery refreshing. That said, the reason that I think the book is a must-read isn’t necessarily about its contents but rather its context. Barber recently briefed cabinet and all of Ottawa is abuzz with talk of deliverology (see: here, here, here, and here). If you want to understand the shift in culture/mindset that may be about to make its way through the bureaucracy you need only look to the table on page 154 of the book which describes the difference between ‘Government by spasm’ and ‘Government by routine’. If you are a public servant, you’d probably do well to pick yourself up a copy. 

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it’s genuinely useful. As much as we might like to, most of us public servants don’t spend our days up in the theory clouds; we have deliverables, deadlines, and performance expectations. Once in a blue moon, we might have a few days to grapple with and devise solutions for a complicated issue that wasn’t even on the radar a few weeks before. Barber’s book is practical in that way: it deals with the nitty gritty of policy and program delivery, and provides simple, road-tested conceptual tools that can help you think through those tough situations. I’ve already found myself referring to his approach in meetings and referring to some of his charts while writing up some documents - the same can’t be said of, say, the Evgeny Morozov book, much as I appreciated it. 

Another reason I enjoyed the book is that it serves as an effective wake-up call for the public service to get its own house in order. Barber humorously describes the silly things us bureaucrats do all the time, from the point of view of a politician or staffer - think of our attachment to the status quo, our tendency to claim that something can’t be done, our proclivity to engage in ridiculous turf wars, our stalling tactics, etc. If we agree that these kinds of behaviours are pervasive and counter-productive, we won’t be able to rely on ‘deliverology’ to save us, given that there wouldn’t be delivery units for most of the things the government does. So if the Government of Canada as a whole is going to become the kind of modern, high-performing, data-literate organization that Barber is envisioning, then bureaucrats will have to deal with some of our own purely internal performance issues in a more ambitious fashion (all within the framework of our delegated authorities, yada yada yada). Better diagnosing the nature of the silliness, and the possible solutions the bureaucracy could reasonably implement on an internal basis, is a topic for another day.

There’s also a lot I didn’t like about this book. My main irritant is that Barber is a poor social scientist. He usually conforms to a ‘logic model’ vision of government, where, for any given policy problem (e.g., low literacy rates) you just need to find the one right lever to pull (i.e., forcing teachers to teach one new literacy class a week in elementary school). Um.. hold on a minute.  For most policy issues, there’s a lot more going on under the hood - I dunno, maybe persistent social exclusion driven by economic inequality, systemic discrimination, or uncontrollable economic forces over which governments have little to no control? (Pick your poison.) So yes, I was somewhat disturbed by Barber’s tendency to make sweeping statements about complicated situations, without much in the way of caveats. So you might want to listen to Barber to decide on how to ‘run a government’, but take his opinions on what the actual policy responses should be with a massive grain of salt. (Don’t get even me started on his frequent claims that ‘the markets vs. governments debate is over’ - the guy’s a pro-market social liberal with light redistributive tendencies. Which is fine; just don’t try to make a drive-by ‘end of history’ argument which passes that off as being the only viable political/policy approach out there.)

Argh, there’s a ton of other things that annoyed me about this book, but I want to keep this review ‘lengthy’, as opposed to ‘unreasonably lengthy’, so I will leave it at that - I won’t even address Barber’s constant humble-bragging and lack of critical self-reflection, or the unsatisfactory way in which Barber discussed the risks of over-relying on metrics (I’ll leave Prez to do the explaining, from way back in 2004). Another topic I would have liked to explore is that ultimately, Barber really only addresses a small sliver of what policy implementation actually involves (a lot of the times it seems to comes down to tracking bureaucrats in order to scare them into coming up with new solutions, but he doesn’t often tell you what the actual solutions were), but I’m a slow writer, and a man has to have evening hobbies that go beyond reviewing books.   

    John Kenney

I liked the book and agree with Nick that Barber’s focus on delivery is refreshing. Here are a few things on my mind in relation to how it might be applied, particularly at the federal level:

One of the things that makes the “science of delivery” different than, say, federal public administration via the Management, Resources and Results Structure (MRRS) and the Management Accountability Framework, is that deliverology focuses government on strategy and priorities. The point is not to “deliverology” everything. In theory at least, it requires a government to make deliberate choices, understand where it’s going and how it’ll know if it’s making progress getting there, and if not, learning and adapting as needed. It’s hardcore when it comes to assessing whether or not the government has the capacity to deliver on what it sets out to do. While some of that may sound like the good intentions of the MRRS or “integrated planning”, deliverology takes it to a new, concentrated level with political engagement and leadership.

Deliverology strikes me as a convergent practice. It picks up at a point where a government has identified its priorities and what it intends to do to achieve them. In the context of complex public problems (aka “wicked problems”), new and emerging policy approaches are attempting to embed divergent and integrative thinking, user research and experimentation into the policy design process in advance of converging on solutions. If well-executed, deliverology could expose the (non)effectiveness of intended policy solutions earlier in the policy cycle and open up opportunities for creative problem-solving and experimentation. I like how it builds in (some) stakeholder engagement, rigourous (enough) performance measurement and monitoring, learning and iteration to rapidly improve and address delivery problems as they arise. It’s an action-oriented and continuous learning approach. Arguably, governments need more of that assuming they’re open to learning, acknowledging when things aren’t going well and adapting their approach to hit the mark. 

I’m intrigued by the application of deliverology at the federal level. The UK and Ontario are oft-cited examples of deliverology in action, and in both cases, they are arguably closer to where the rubber hits the road as far as delivering policy interventions directly to citizens go. I’m writing generally here and it will depend on the policy priorities and strategies in question. The government and implicated jurisdictions are open to challenge conventional assumptions of how stakeholder arrangements may work to deliver the public goods, at least in theory (possibly in practice?).

Deliverology is not a magic bullet. Barber doesn’t present it as one so let’s not get cult-ish about it. There’s a lot of good stuff to learn and apply, but note that the same federal government that appears eager to apply its principles and practices has also been clear on the need to create the time and space for (super)forecasting, designing citizen-centred digital services, and experimenting with new policy instruments and approaches, including behavioural and data-driven insights, and engaging Canadians via crowdsourcing and open data initiatives. It remains to be seen how consistent and compatible those approaches are with deliverology, which, as Barber writes, “...is still in its infancy”. He concludes the book with three rules on the future of delivery:

  • Big data and transparency are coming (prepare to make the most of them);
  • Successful markets and effective government go together (avoid the false dichotomy); and,
  • Public and social entrepreneurship will become increasingly important to delivering outcomes (encourage it).

Deliverology is not a linear approach although it can sometimes come across as one. While Barber’s focus is intentionally on delivery here, there’s a continuous learning loop built into it that, if executed effectively, could yield insights that inform ongoing and future policy design and delivery approaches.

I’ve added “in theory”, “if executed effectively” and “assuming that…” in a number of places above. I agree with Francis that Barber oversimplifies things a lot to demonstrate the lessons (or “rules”) for government. I like many of them in principle (there I go again), but if and how deliverology is applied to influence complex systems and human behaviours both within the public service and beyond may depend on its openness to adapt where necessary to the policy contexts and needs of numerous implicated users and stakeholders at different times and scales.

Kent AitkenRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Er… well done, gentlemen. I’m getting to this joint review late, and Nick, Francis, and John have covered a lot of ground in spectacular fashion. I only have a handful of points to add.

One is to re-emphasize Nick’s angle, which is that part of the reason this book was so interesting was the possibility that it’s about to influence public administration in Canada - possibly in tangible, day-to-day ways for some public servants. That said, during the discussion I also cautioned that one bureaucrat's environmental scanning or forecasting may be another bureaucrat's tea-leaf-reading. I’m trying to resist reading too far into things until deliverology rears its head for real.  

The second is to sum up what the core of the book, and the idea of deliverology, was for me: it’s government knowing what it wants to do, and knowing for sure that those things are getting done. Which sounds pretty reasonable. Barber highlights in the book that holding administrators to account for results isn’t about a blame game, it’s actually about helping and clearing obstacles for initiatives that are challenging to implement. (Which, I suspect, is an ideal that some past “implementers” may not have felt at the time.)

Which leads into a related third point: I’m curious as to how bureaucratic writing and deliverology will mesh. Government officials can tend towards non-specific language like “commit to,” “enhance,” “support,” “enable,” and “facilitate” in their planning and reporting - which I don’t think would cut it to a delivery unit: “Okay, but what did you really do?”

Lastly, which contrasts a little with the above reviews: as a public servant, I spend my time in the weeds of public administration. I think about the details, the working level, and the implementation. Barber’s ideas are those of someone who has to take the 10,000 foot-high view, working with heads of state or their close circles. So where Francis and John (rightly) express concern with how these ideas work in complex, day-to-day realities, the book gave me some perspective on what delivery might look like to a country’s senior officials - who are forced to look for the best ways to condense their information intake while making things happen.