Business Services Sector are ideal partners in government quest for delivery

21 Oct 2021

Guest Blog by Professor Gary Sturgess

The Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit has an honourable history, and the decision by the current Prime Minister to re-establish it is to be welcomed. As a business leader commented to me recently – good government is five percent policy, 10 percent implementation and 85 percent delivery.

In tracing the origins of the PMDU, we must go back to the ‘Next Steps’ report, published by the Efficiency Unit (as it was then called) in 1988. The formal title of this report – ‘Improving Management in Government’ – captured the organisation’s mission, and that one report, written by a small team over a period of several months, had a profound impact on the structure of government over the decades that followed. (And, by the way, ‘Next Steps’ claimed that 95 percent of the Civil Service was concerned with delivery.)

The Delivery Unit established in 2001 by Prime Minister Blair had a much narrower brief, driving the government’s key priorities for the second term, but it resulted in a great deal of learning around intensive performance management. It is not to be confused with the obsessive use of targets introduced by HM Treasury around the same time. An Implementation Unit is concerned with the 10 percent: important as this is, it does not reflect the importance of the 85 percent which impacts ordinary men and women day-to-day.

What, then, should be the focus of the PMDU redivivus? What contribution can an organisation at the very heart of the policy-making world have on front-line delivery?

To start with, it might serve to focus a great deal more attention on the 85 or 95 percent of civil servants who are engaged, day-to-day, in the untidy work of service provision. The longshoreman philosopher, Eric Hoffer, wrote in 1958 that the measure of vigorous society was to be found in the energy which it invests in ‘the dull routine of maintenance’. So much of the greatness of a public service lies in how it manages the quotidian.

Brilliant though it was, ‘Next Steps’ stopped with the ‘executive agencies’, failing to recognise the ‘firms’ which deliver front-line services, some of which, like schools, are relatively small. The PMDU will fail if the Prime Minister does not empower it to focus on the quotidian.

That must involve a remorseless focus on honouring and unburdening the operational managers of government. A distinction needs to be drawn between the executive managers, for whom management consists of org charts and memos, and operational managers, who organise and motivate the people who engage directly with the public. Active, adaptive management. Their workload is relentless – ‘one damn thing after another’, as Henry Mintzberg described it.

Of course, performance management must be part of this agenda – ‘results-based accountability’ has been one of the hot topics in public administration in recent years – but the challenges of excellence in delivery are much more fundamental than this.

If government wants to challenge delivery agents and hold them to account, it must learn how to delegate. Management must have sufficient control over the inputs and the internal processes that it is capable of having a substantial and measurable impact on results. The controllability principle was a central tenet of management accounting in the 1980s, but in truth, governments find it difficult to delegate in this way.

The other half of performance management is the resources – ensuring that front line managers have adequate money, time and people, whilst also challenging them to innovate, particularly in the delivery of value for money. There needs to be a grown-up discussion between those who commission and those who deliver to ensure that results and resources are matched.

Time is one of the most important resources which the executive can bestow on front-line managers. Efficient and effective delivery demands that managers understand their budgets and the measures of success, years in advance – they need time to create a vision, develop a plan, to build and motivate their team, truly understand and transform the detailed operations of the services for which they are responsible.

No one should underestimate the difficulty of doing this in government, where time-horizons are short, discount rates approach infinity once every five years, and Ministers want public services that can turn on a sixpence. The public service can deliver all these things, but it will be inefficient and expensive.

It seems to me that the business services sector has something to contribute to such an agenda, particularly contract managers who have delivered similar services inside government. Contracting is not always done well, and public service contractors are not perfect. But the starting point in any study of insourcing is outsourcing, and there is a great deal that could be learned about the business of delivery from former public servants now working as operational managers in the private sector.

Professor Gary Sturgess,

Australia & New Zealand School of Government