What can civil servants expect from Michael Barber's Whitehall efficiency review?

Written by Adrian Brown on 8 March 2017 in Opinion

The Treasury announced this week that Sir Michael Barber – former head of the Blair-era Prime Minister's Delivery Unit – will be heading up the latest in a long line of reviews of civil service efficiency. Adrian Brown, who has worked closely with Barber, spells out what Whitehall can expect.

The news that Sir Michael Barber has been appointed to "investigate how government can make efficiency improvements central to its culture and practices" has been met with cheers from Whitehall watchers

Although a familiar figure in governments around the world (he was recently advising Justin Trudeau's government in Canada about delivery) this is the first time Michael's services have been called upon by the UK government for over a decade. Having worked with Michael on-and-off for the past 15 years I can certainly vouch for his street smarts when it comes to challenging the civil service – so what should Whitehall expect?

In 2002, as I joined the newly established Prime Minister's Delivery Unit (PMDU), Barber faced an analogous problem to the one he's just been set. Back then, the challenge was to improve the focus on implementation as the civil service generally failed to draw any connection between the work they were doing and the results experienced by citizens outside the Westminster bubble. Once a policy had been drafted and approved by ministers it was up to others to deliver – and, if the results disappointed, it wasn't Whitehall's fault.

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Barber challenged that culture through a combination of clear priorities, a relentless focus on data and the establishment of routines such as monthly prime ministerial stocktake meetings that held ministers and their top officials to account. The results were positive with waiting times, crime and rail delays all falling. The delivery unit model was subsequently mimicked around the globe with the high-water mark arguably being the enthusiastic conversion of then World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim to the "science of delivery".

"Barber challenged Whitehall's culture with clear priorities, a relentless focus on data and holding ministers and their top officials to account"

But by Barber's own admission, PMDU did not focus enough on productivity. For example, Blair's health reforms were delivered successfully but with a 7-8% growth in budgets. Could it have been done more efficiently? Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer, who has apparently read Michael's books with gusto, is clearly a believer, declaring that Michael's appointment will "help ensure that we deliver public services as effectively and efficiently as possible, all while delivering maximum value for the taxpayer". Putting aside the tautological nature of this sentence, can the same approaches that PMDU used to drive delivery be re-tooled for the efficiency agenda?

The clarity of the framework within which PMDU operated, with Whitehall-wide agreed targets for public service outcomes, is unlikely to be repeated for efficiency. Furthermore, given that measuring efficiency in the public sector is notoriously difficult, data is going to be harder to come by than the public service outcomes of the Blair era. Finally, with the all-consuming nature of navigating Brexit it seems unlikely that Theresa May will be focusing on efficiency in the way that Blair focused on delivery. So don't expect the targets, data and prime ministerial routines of PMDU to make a return anytime soon.

This time, I predict that Michael will adopt a less technocratic and more systemic approach. A couple of years ago, when I established the Centre for Public Impact with Michael as co-chair, he explained why it is important "to create networks of public officials so they can learn and adapt lessons from other areas. "You don’t want to have to rely on the heroic efforts of individual civil servants", he said. "You need to build it into the system." 

Combine this with his strong belief in the "power of incremental gains" and the strategy is likely to be one of cultivating a gradual cultural shift rather than the shock and awe of PM stocktakes.

If he succeeds in promoting an efficiency culture in Whitehall, and I'm minded to believe he just might, then it will surely cement Barber's reputation as something of a genius when it comes to improving government. And given that public sector efficiency is just as intractable a problem around the world as delivery was 15 years ago, he's likely to find himself in high demand once again.

About the author

Adrian Brown is the executive director of the Centre for Public Impact

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Susan2 (not verified)

Submitted on 13 March, 2017 - 10:20
Hooray - or am I being a tad optimistic thinking - if I may para-phrase Prof Higgins - "By jove, I think he's got it!". When I read above: "Back then, the challenge was to improve the focus on implementation as the civil service generally failed to draw any connection between the work they were doing and the results experienced by citizens outside the Westminster bubble. Once a policy had been drafted and approved by ministers it was up to others to deliver – and, if the results disappointed, it wasn't Whitehall's fault. Am I to understand that someone has finally realised that the decisions the SCS make in Whitehall, don't translate well at the 'coal-face' and aren't necessarily in the best interests of the general public? The 'bubble' has to burst and the SCS need to experience some of the effects of their decisions at the other end of the process.

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