Why do so many governments achieve so little?

New books by Anthony King and Michael Barber invite us to assess - and act.

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How to Run a Government: So That Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy
Michael Barber
Allen Lane, 337pp, £16.99

Who Governs Britain?
Anthony King
Pelican, 331pp, £7.99

It is remarkable how little most ministers and most governments achieve. A handful of reforms are the lot of most prime ministers; and few ministers leave much by way of a solid legacy. Harold Wilson once said that his greatest achievement was the Open University – after eight years as prime minister.

Furthermore, many of the reforms for which ministers are remembered made things worse. “Change? Change?” asked the reactionary Tory prime minister Lord Salisbury. “Aren’t things bad enough already?” From the poll tax to Andrew Lansley’s health reforms, from apprenticeships to “eco-towns”, the records of recent Tory and Labour governments are littered with failed reforms and ineffective responses to major national challenges. Then there are the wars of recent decades, many of which were disastrous or failed to achieve their objectives.

So tips on “how to run a government” are much needed and Michael Barber, who set up the delivery unit in Tony Blair’s No 10, is a source of inspiration and wisdom. The science of “deliverology” may sound opaque but the idea is simple: governments need to be organised to achieve their goals.

Barber provides a wealth of delivery stories from home and abroad and tops them off with a guide of “57 rules”. Some of these are motherhood and apple pie, such as “Decide on your priorities” and “Understand the wood and the trees” – although it is notable how often these do not happen in practice. Others are more specific and contentious, such as: “Set a small number of well-designed targets”, “‘More for less’ trumps ‘investment for reform’” and “Set up a delivery unit (call it what you like, but separate it from strategy and policy)”.

A government that heeded all 57 rules, including having a well-run delivery unit reporting to the head of the government, would maximise its potential. The virtue of a delivery unit à la Barber is that it enables prime ministers to know about and monitor what is going on in the main departments and gives them a routine for doing so, including – other critical aspects of deliv­erology – regular “stocktake” meetings with the relevant ministers and officials as well as “monthly notes” for the leader (“...and make them deeply interesting”). Departmental ministers benefit from setting up similar arrangements, “deeply interesting” notes and all.

Deliverology does not directly address the fundamental questions of what governments should be seeking to deliver and how they should design good policy to be delivered. However, Barber and his rules imply a partial technocratic answer: governments should focus first and foremost on the basics of a well-functioning state and society, starting with education, health and law and order.

Tellingly, Barber’s background and passion are in education. His first foray into a delivery unit was the “standards and effectiveness unit” that he led at the Department for Education in Blair’s first term. Its main responsibility was the implementation of national literacy and numeracy strategies, intended to ensure that all 11-year-olds demonstrated the competence expected of their age in reading, writing and maths in national tests. When Barber moved to No 10 in Blair’s second term, his delivery unit continued to monitor basic educational standards, alongside important targets – such as a reduction in waiting times in hospital accident and emergency units – at the Department of Health and the other public-service ministries.

A government that is focused on raising basic performance in the core public services will be on a solid foundation. Setting the reforms to be delivered is as much an art as a science, and it is often ideological. For example, how far do choice and making them contestable improve the performance of public health and education systems? This issue caused deep controversy within the Blair government, let alone beyond. As one of Barber’s 57 rules points out, “Choice is becoming increasingly important in public systems.” But whether that should translate into free schools for education, or private providers within the NHS, remains deeply contentious.

Can deliverology help resolve ideological disputes? Certainly not those based on pure faith in “public good/private bad” or vice versa. But in the more rational, pragmatic world of the “social market”, straddling the democratic centre left and centre right, it can help by focusing policy and debate on performance and on hard data.

As Andreas Schleicher, the education director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, puts it: “Without data, you are just another person with an opinion.”

This is straight out of the Barber playbook, as is the OECD programme of international benchmarking of school performance, including standardised testing, which has been a strong spur to school reform, country by country. In each case, reforms to promote teacher quality, school leadership and performance in national tests and exams have followed.

Barber is a man with a mission. Anthony King’s Who Governs Britain? is a more classic work of academic explanation by a master of the art. A neat overlap between the two books is King’s discussion of the relative powerlessness of most prime ministers: “Pomp should never be confused with power, and celebrity is far from being capacity.” Citing Harry S Truman’s remark that his successor Dwight Eisenhower would find it very frustrating to give orders and find nothing happened (“It won’t be a bit like the army”), King adds: “The minority of British prime ministers who seek to accomplish more than merely keeping the show on the road know how that feels.”

Crucial to his argument is the notion: “An identifiable political class has emerged – and the costs of its emergence undoubtedly outweigh its benefits.” This, King suggests, is because, among the “mostly well-educated and politically savvy” class of professional political operatives, “Few have acquired useful pre-political or ministerial experience.” The result is a cascade of words and “a large proportion of in-a-hurry, activist ministers . . . under pressure to do or say something . . . in time for the Six O’Clock News”.

Let’s hope that the next cohort of activist ministers reads Barber’s book before setting out for the news. Then they may say something – even do something – worthwhile.

Andrew Adonis served as a minister for education and as transport secretary in the last Labour government

This article appears in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!