Dominic Cummings (who ought to know) is not impressed by Michael Barber, Tony Blair’s former adviser and self-styled ‘delivery man’

Michael Barber’s How to Run a Government doesn’t do what it says on the tin

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

How to Run a Government Michael Barber

Allen Lane, pp.316, £16.99, ISBN: 9780241004975

In 2001, Tony Blair took Sir Michael Barber from his perch as special adviser in the Department for Education and brought him into Downing Street. Once there Barber set up Blair’s ‘Delivery Unit’ and oversaw his attempts to reform public services. He then moved to the McKinsey consultancy where he cloned his unit for governments around the world.

He has now written a book, How to Run a Government, about what he calls ‘deliverology’ — an ‘emerging science of delivery’. It is part memoir and part a ‘how to’ manual describing ‘a set of processes that enables governments to deliver ambitious goals’.

Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s adviser, is reported saying to Barber six months after the 2010 election: ‘I know we disparaged targets and delivery and all that when we were in opposition, but now we’ve been here a while, we have a question: how did you do it?’ Barber replied: ‘You’ve learned fast. It took Blair four years to learn the same thing.’ His book is an extended answer to Cameron and others who arrive in Downing Street ignorant of how to get anything done.

Barber summarises wisdom from hundreds of books about effective management. He explains the various systems his team have developed to take a politician’s agenda, break it into a series of priorities and processes, then chase each one relentlessly.

I have worked in Whitehall and dealt with a decrepit Downing Street and Sir Humphrey at his worst. I am sure that new ministers would learn from this book. Many will be more successful if they turn over their agenda to Barber’s consultants.

However, this book is not a manual on ‘how to run a government’. As Barber says, his approach is based on the assumption that his team ‘always knows more about what “good” or “bad” looks like in other, similar organisations’ than officials and MPs do. This is the heart of the problem. It is inconceivable that Barber’s consultants could go into a brilliantly managed company like Apple and know more than the CEO about ‘what good or bad looks like in similar organisations’.

His team gets results because they are picking very low-hanging fruit— they are providing what should be minimal competence for people who do not know how to prioritise and are managerially incompetent. He recalls realising that after all the promises made in the 2000 Spending Review ‘there was no plan’ to achieve them. This was ‘a seminal moment’ for him, and he started the necessary planning, but as he says: ‘Why wouldn’t any minister with a sense of purpose [do] this in the first couple of months in office?’ Quite.Barber, a nice man who believes the best of politicians, does not answer his own question.

He writes that the military’s success in dealing with the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak showed Blair the wonders of Cobra, the No. 10 disaster response system. When Blair faced a media storm over asylum seekers, he therefore turned to Cobra. For Barber, this is an example of successful ‘deliverology’. However, a prime minister using the terrorist crisis response system to grip a media storm over basic policy is not an example to be copied. It is a symptom of Whitehall’s profound dysfunction. It is similar to the way in which the London ambulance service now regularly uses the protocol for coping with terrorist attacks just to get through the day. It is a sign of a broken system, not a prescription for ‘how to run a government’.

Unfortunately, Barber explicitly advises MPs: ‘Don’t depend on generic civil service reform because you don’t have the time.’ This will get a very loud cheer from Sir Humphrey, but if we want serious government then we need fundamental changes in the way ministers and officials are selected, trained, paid, managed and held accountable. We need to reshape institutions so that they do not depend on sprinkling a layer of consultants on a broken bureaucracy to gerrymander management processes that ought to be in entry-level training for junior officials.

Barber’s ‘deliverology’ is better than government by spin and gimmick, but is only a recipe for forcing a few priorities through routinely incompetent bureaucracies. It is not a recipe for coping with the economic and technological forces, from drones to genetic engineering, that are disrupting society faster than our institutions can adapt. This requires replacing many Whitehall institutions with ones that can change as quickly as the world around them changes.

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  • David Russell-Wolf

    I agree with Cummings. Barber is good, but he works round the really big problem. Civil Service has hundreds – thousands – of extremely clever, well-intentioned people bashing away furiously at their keyboards in huge buildings writing subtle, thoughtful and finely crafted memos that will only ever be read by other civil servants in the same building. It is a massive waste of talent.

    I worked in one department – considered to be one of the best – for 15 years, including 9 years in the senior civil service. It was often extremely hectic, with difficult, intricate tasks being demanded with very short deadlines; and yet the overall machine created change in the real world at a glacial pace. This apparent contradiction arose because the frantic activity was happening in too many separate silos, which often went right up through the organisation and never came together until they reached the desk of a Minister (or a SpAd; hence Cummings’ accurate view of this problem). There was also a lack of real-world expertise; the civil servants were ‘book-learned’, at best, and generally were flying guided mainly by powerful intellects, largely unsullied by facts or experience.

    The solution ? A department 30% of the size, but – this is crucial – trying to do 30% of the things. Every department just tries to do far, far too many things, many of which are mutually contradictory. And also create far more porous boundaries, with good people moving in and out on merit. Like, erm, any normal organisation would.

  • Kinvara Balfour

    Why do you say “his team get results”? There is zero evidence, no independent, rigorous evaluations that have ever demonstrated results from Michael Barber’s work.