Kelman: Learning from the Brits

A book about good government initiatives in Britain offers insights for U.S. leaders

In the United States, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is probably most associated with his stance on Iraq. But in the United Kingdom, another pillar of his years in office was a determined effort to improve the quality of public services, particularly by reducing crime and improving education, health care and public transportation.

Disappointed with the effort’s lack of focus and drive in his first term, Blair established an office called the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit at the beginning of his second term in 2001. Its mission was to drive about 20 priority performance improvement targets Blair’s government had established. The Delivery Unit modeled its approach on how the headquarters of a large company would drive performance on important corporate priorities.

Michael Barber, who led the office between 2001 and 2005, has written an account of those efforts titled “Instruction to Deliver.” The book is a rare beast: a public-management page turner, delightfully written and full of insights and anecdotes that point out similarities and differences in high-level politics in Britain and abroad.

During his tenure, Barber had to overcome worries from departments about micromanaging from the top. Does that sound similar to the concerns federal agencies have about the Office of Management and Budget? A skeptical senior civil servant asked him when the unit was formed how big its staff would be “to the nearest hundred.” Barber responded, “To the nearest hundred, zero,” and he made sure he kept staff to less than 50.

As time passed, change-oriented senior managers came to see the unit as a force that provided outside pressure they could use to argue against internal skeptics resistant to change.

The Blair who emerges in the book is not perfect but is an admirable figure nonetheless. He agreed, in conjunction with establishment of the Delivery Unit, to lead stocktakes, or quarterly progress reviews with cabinet secretaries. That process is similar to a chief executive officer meeting with a division head about the division’s numbers. 

Barber reported that Blair occasionally seemed distracted at those meetings and sometimes, in the wartime world, didn’t show up. Amazingly, though, he often did, and it is hard to imagine a U.S. president so willing to devote time over several years to meeting regularly with secretaries on progress toward their Government Performance and Results Act goals.

Blair also displayed a distaste for government bureaucracy. “He was determined to cut drastically the bureaucracy and red tape, which he said were ‘killing’ people at the front line,” Barber wrote. A similar effort would be welcome at senior political levels of our government.

Blair brought Barber to his press conferences on occasion, asking him to present graphs showing trends in public service performance. Barber gleefully stated, “My beloved graphs at last reached a
global audience.”

However, journalists were completely uninterested in any substantive issues that Barber raised, rushing instead to ask Blair about political infighting and maneuvering. Barber noted that, at one press conference, Blair threatened to have Barber redo his graph-laden presentation if the journalists didn’t improve their behavior. Some things are the same in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Kelman (steve_kelman@harvard.edu) is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

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