The dark arts of deliverology will only get you so far: Brian Lee Crowley in the Globe

Brian Lee Crowley

Brian Lee CrowleyNow that the Trudeau government is delving into the dark arts of deliverology, a British attempt to improve the quality and productivity of public services, it is a good time to think about whether it works.

Brian Lee Crowley, writing in the Globe and Mail, is dubious.

By Brian Lee Crowley, April 29, 2016

Long is the history of words, originally intended as terms of abuse by their opponents, that are eventually adopted by their original targets. A Tory, for example, comes from a term denoting an Irish highwayman, whereas a Whig was originally a Scottish sheep thief. So too is it with deliverology.

The always irreverent British press coined this ugly neologism as a way to send up the earnest professorial efforts of Michael Barber, brought in by then Labour prime minister Tony Blair to help figure out why it was proving so hard to improve the quality and productivity of British public services. Blair was spending billions on health, education, policing and other public services, but the quality of the results, as experienced by the users of those services, remained stubbornly disappointing. Blair’s solution was to try and do an end run around the allegedly recalcitrant civil service by creating a command and control system centred in the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, under Barber’s leadership. Now that Sir Michael is advising the Trudeau government on the dark arts of deliverology, it is a good time to think about whether it works.

Deliverology had many features, but the two chief ones were the attempt to boil desired results down to measurable targets and then holding managers accountable, through carrots and sticks, for success in achieving those targets. This became derisively known as the “culture of targets.”  Google that term and see just how popular it is with the great British public.

Of course the first challenge in a target-driven culture is understanding just what the system is expected to deliver, which is often complex and non-intuitive, whereas a culture of targets requires simplicity and clarity. A service that must meet 100 targets is one whose central purpose is unclear and cannot be successfully managed, especially if many of the targets are ones that cannot be acknowledged.

This all puts me in mind of a friend who some years ago was refreshing his doctoral research on the British Housing Act of the late 1950s. He went to interview the man who had been the minister responsible and started his questions with what he thought was the uncontroversial statement that we now knew that the Act in question had been a failure. The former minister energetically demurred. But, my friend spluttered, the stated purpose of the Act was to ensure the construction of 300,000 houses a year. Nothing like that number was built.

Rubbish replied the politician. The purpose of that Act was to remove housing as a topic of partisan contention. It was so successful that housing did not surface as an issue in the three subsequent general elections.

Unacknowledged targets aren’t the only challenge of course. In a recent book Barber himself dismisses one of the standard objections to narrow targets, namely that they create harmful unintended consequences.  He then goes on to score an own-goal when he laments a controversy over hospital waiting times during his tenure. Staff had quickly realised that the target, which they found onerous, only applied once people had entered through the hospital doors. Their perfectly logical solution was to prevent people getting inside. Sir Michael decried the professional ethics of the perpetrators, but as one reviewer of his book noted, “a group of people being asked to deliver a target they resist are very likely to find ways to disrupt it.”

But of course, leaving these objections aside, the central question is whether Sir Michael’s approach works. The record is decidedly mixed. Remember that this king of targets set a central one for his efforts when he opined that public sector productivity ‘is now the central issue of domestic politics’. According to one researcher, using the British national statistics agency’s methodology, in the five years before Barber arrived, the productivity of publicly-funded education increased on average by 2.1 per cent a year; in the following 8 years it fell on average by 0.7 per cent despite unprecedented spending increases intended to lubricate change. No prizes for guessing that the turning point coincides with Barber’s arrival.

No large scale organisation can survive, of course, without some common goals and that includes targets and accountability. But these will only get you so far, in large part because the providers of public services almost always organise to run the services in their own interests rather than those of their clients.

That is why allowing private sector competitors in the provision of public services such as schools and health care is so important. The risk of losing clientele to more effective and responsive alternatives, especially when backed by vouchers and other means of empowering consumers regardless of income, will get you to a better place than a culture of targets within monolithic and self-protective public providers.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.mli.dev.pcomms.ca.