It’s all in the detail: Key lessons of delivery in government

Sir Michael Barber
Jun 13, 2018 · 7 min read
Image for post
Image for post

I’ve always loved riding bikes. During my career it’s been my preferred travel to work mode. At a glance the bikes I’ve had over the last 40 years all look pretty much the same — a frame of two triangles, two equal size wheels (I was too late for the penny farthing) and a transmission system that uses the pressure I apply to the pedals to drive the wheels. Simple really.

But here’s the thing. In spite of the similarity in design, the performance of my recent bikes is dramatically different and better than those of years ago (even though I have steadily aged!). It’s a transformation. The reason for this is simple — every detail has been significantly improved. The frame is lighter and more flexible, the tyres are much less likely to puncture, the gear change is swift and reliable and the brakes work instantly, even in the rain. Then there are the lights — a tiny lightweight LED light can now brighten the whole road.

What we’ve discovered is that the same phenomenon is true with the delivery units set up in Governments to ensure that administrations are delivering their policies effectively. We are getting better at understanding and delivering success all the time — and as with bikes, the difference between success and failure is all in the detail. We, at Delivery Associates, have worked with expert practitioners of delivery around the world, some of whom have contributed to a new publication, Success Delivered’, which teases out the crucial details of what characterises success.

We start with some basic assumptions. For example, just because you call it a delivery unit doesn’t make it one — if it’s just a label on an organisation chart it won’t make any difference. It will be a Delivery Unit in Name Only (DINO). Similarly, the definition of success is not that the Unit endures permanently; it’s that significant, real gains in performance are delivered for citizens — they can see, feel and experience the improved performance in their day-to-day lives.

Which leads to a statement of the obvious that is sometimes ignored — don’t start a delivery unit unless you really mean it.

But if you do mean it, here are the crucial details to pay attention to.


First of all, none of this will happen without the right leadership at two levels. The political leader (this may be a President, a PM or, at provincial or state level, a Premier or Chief Minister) has to be ambitious, focused and disciplined. Meanwhile the head of the delivery unit needs to believe in the mission, love data and graphs, be loyal to the boss and excellent at building relationships with politicians and officials. The test for a delivery unit head is whether you can deliver a strong, critical message to a senior politician or official in a meeting and still leave the room with the relationship stronger than when you went in. This requires a combination of courage, humility and empathy. Glenn King, who leads the New South Wales delivery unit which has successfully served two successive Premiers, explains; “Our whole approach is built on a foundation of collective leadership, commitment and collaboration — getting these relationships…right at the outset pays off in the long run and helps when leaders change.”


Second, move the numbers! You have to have a goal and a plan and you have to collect data to know what is working and what isn’t. That means regular flows of data, as close to real-time as possible. (There are people around who argue for evidence-based policy but against good real-time data. Don’t take any notice of them.) A good example is Brunei where, as part of diversifying the economy away from oil and gas, they focussed on making it easier to start a business. Until 2013 this took sixteen separate steps and over 100 days but by 2015 it could be done in under 24 hours. That is great but were there any real benefits? Yes, the numbers moved, but also significantly more businesses have started year on year ever since.


Third, if the delivery unit is to be the key to driving the government’s agenda, it needs to be staffed by great people. The leadership we have already mentioned but what about the rest of the team? As the founder of Peru’s delivery unit, Ernesto Balarezo, put it, “One of my main functions is to find, develop and empower the best talent. If I am successful in that all else will follow.” Ernesto brought in people from outside and mixed them with people who knew and understood government. The result has been that in the unstable political context of Peru, the delivery unit has been able to continue to drive progress through two Presidents, three Prime Ministers and now three heads of the delivery unit itself. Last year it helped the government respond successfully to terrible floods in northern Peru and public confidence in the police, a key goal for the government, has risen steadily.


Fourth, a successful delivery unit requires a special kind of culture. Jenny Cargill who has led the delivery unit in Western Cape through a series of major challenges describes the required culture perfectly; she says it requires a team characterised by “an untiring work ethic, persistence, resilience, plain-speaking, self-motivation, taking initiative and flexibility.” The environment the team works in therefore needs to “support innovation, constant inquiry and an orientation towards finding solutions…”. By contrast, those delivery units that don’t succeed are always telling you how difficult everything is and making excuses for lack of progress.


Fifth, the delivery unit leader needs to build routine processes so that the political leader can check that progress is being made. The best approach is to have regular stocktakes on each key area to review progress and solve problems. Ali Jan Khan has led the transformation of primary health care for the Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan, Shehbaz Sharif. The top priorities are reducing infant mortality and maternal deaths in childbirth. The Chief Minister holds a 2 hour health stocktake every three months or so without fail. Ali Jan explains how these stocktakes help drive delivery; “Before every stocktake, I review the progress of each indicator in detail with my team and the Special Monitoring Unit (the Chief Minister’s Delivery Unit)…we expedite resolutions with extra effort to ensure they are resolved or ‘in progress’ by the time the stocktake is held…” And the stocktake routine drives even deeper into the bureaucracy because Ali Jan also now “holds weekly reviews with my team to ensure implementation.” The progress on primary health care is faster and more comprehensive than almost anywhere else in the world, remarkable across a province of 110million people. The routines driven by the Chief Minister’s stocktakes that are informed by good data are the key to this transformation.


Sixthly, and finally, successful delivery units are always informed by reality — through visits to the frontline and being fully in touch with what is happening on the ground. They understand that however good the data is, it doesn’t tell you all you need to know. An illustration from Canada makes the point. The Prime Minister pledged to end by 2021 a long-standing blemish on modern Canada — he would make sure that every indigenous Canadian community had access to reliable, clean drinking water. This meant ending what the Canadian law officially calls drinking water advisories (DWAs). By early 2017 there had not been enough progress. The Results and Delivery Unit team working with the relevant department of government for the first time visited numerous indigenous reservations including meeting First Nations chiefs and people. As a result, they came to understand the problem in a way that sitting in Ottawa they had been unable to. And progress is now accelerating — there has been a 17 percent reduction in DWAs in the months since the frontline visits and the government is now on track to meet the PM’s pledge.


Is any of this conceptually difficult to grasp? Not at all. At face value, it is no more than common sense. So the question arises, why don’t all governments work like this all the time?

The answer to this is that governments are complicated — there are always crises getting in the way, departments don’t find it easy to collaborate, politicians can become so absorbed in the presentation policy that the hard yards of delivery are neglected while bureaucrats can find themselves circulating papers explaining why everything is so hard and progress so slow. The whole machine risks becoming comfortable and mediocre.

The challenge therefore is not conceptual; it’s about ambition, focus, clarity and urgency. Any government can change the way it works for the better as long as it is determined to do so and goes about it in the right way. A good place to start is to set some ambitious goals, gather regular data and establish routine stocktakes. As with the dramatic improvement in bicycle performance over my lifetime, transforming government is all in the detail, as Success Delivered explains.

This leaves one lesson more, the most important of all — never forget the moral purpose of government, which is to enable citizens to live more fulfilled and productive lives. You can ride the most beautiful bike in the world but it is often admiring the view from the top of a mountain that inspires you to get on the bike in the first place.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store