‘Yes, Minister’ Got It All Wrong

The real way to run a government

David Willetts

(photo: BBC Archive)

Michael Barber served as the head of Tony Blair’s delivery unit. He is the doyen of what is now called “deliverology”. His book is a very useful compendium of all that he learnt in his time. He distils 57 lessons, perhaps too many to absorb easily. But there is a lot of common sense and practical wisdom. He believes in ministers setting a clear strategy with specific indicators or targets which you then monitor to see how you are doing against your key objectives. This may seem radical in politics but is how many organisations are run nowadays. It is why he was a breath of fresh air in Whitehall.

His approach is far better than just seeing Whitehall and the civil service as plotting to stop ministers doing things. From Yes Minister to the Chris Mullin diaries this picture of Whitehall has been mined for its comic potential. But it is largely nonsense. It has painted a picture of ministers as by and large hapless, hopeless, and powerless. This is bad for politics and is not even true. Politicians may not be able to change things in the short run as much as they or the media hope. But in the long run — and that may be only a few years — ministerial decisions make a very big difference indeed. And these need not even be the obvious big decisions taken at the top by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. You have to know what to do and if as a minister you can get over three high but not insuperable hurdles you can get a lot done. First, you need to get the Treasury on side or, failing that, Number 10 has to be massively supportive. Second, your colleagues have to be broadly willing to trust your judgment. Third, you have to stay out of too many media scrapes. Then the truth is that ministers in a British government can actually get a lot done. Blaming the civil service is usually an alibi for a badly thought through policy which had little chance of success anyway.

Of course, that does not mean that ministers will necessarily get things right and nor may their advisers. There is a lack of real policy expertise in Whitehall. Too many officials move around too quickly which means they are susceptible to the institution’s conventional wisdom because they have not really had the time to master the evidence and become truly expert. So the same mistakes are repeated. And ministers face trade-offs which have been around for decades without really any idea of how these dilemmas had presented themselves in the past and what decisions were taken then and why.

There is a repertoire of options for managing and improving public services which have been developed over the past few decades. You can always improvise and innovate but there are some classic types of response. Barber has a particularly strong discussion of different key strategic approaches — trust and altruism, hierarchy and targets, choice and competition, devolution and transparency, privatisation and vouchers. With so much political heat around these options it is quite a contrast to have such a low-key, almost managerial assessment. Trust and altruism score particularly badly in his assessment.

Once the policy or the strategy is formulated you then have to deliver it. This is where Michael Barber really gets going. Implementation is what truly interests him. I worked in the Number 10 Policy Unit 30 years ago and if I had my time again I would do more to follow up on implementation. We did try to spend a day a week out of London just seeing how things were going in the hospital or the business or the benefit office. Often Margaret Thatcher appreciated the notes we wrote for her afterwards with a bit of the salty reality to them. But instead it is easy to be seduced by the sweet smell of freshly baked policy and not focus on the tricky job of what happened afterwards. The final product is not the ministerial speech or the policy statement or even the legislation; the final outcome is when services and people’s lives are better.

But there are gaps in Barber’s account. A lot of politics is missing. His examples are mainly from the Blair government and he could surely tell us more about how things really happened. He tells a story of Blair gradually building up the experience to reform. He completely fails to acknowledge the deliberate decisions taken early on by that government to abolish grant-maintained schools and GP fund-holding. For me, sitting on the Opposition benches in the late Nineties and watching Blairite ministers destroy these initiatives was desperately frustrating when they could so easily have kept them and improved them. He could have been more frank about why the Blairites did that and how they came to realise their mistake and ended up with a policy agenda not that different from John Major’s.

That would open up the question of where the strategy comes from and the costs of sticking to it as against adjusting it. Another frustration when one observed the Blairites from the Opposition benches was that problems were easily dismissed as mere implementation issues when sometimes it was that the strategy was fundamentally flawed. Was Gallipoli a failure of implementation? In the real world there is an endless interplay between the strategy and the evidence about what is working. It was clearly tempting for Blair’s advisers at the centre to assume that the strategy must be right and the only problems were implementation — but that is the behaviour of First World War generals in their chateaux. How do you get important messages about the real world to them?

Then there are also questions of how you set up and monitor performance indicators. Two incidents when the Treasury brought in performance measurement and pay for its officials revealed this challenge. I was working in the monetary policy division and had to set out measures of my performance. In a way the objective was very simple then — low inflation. But holding me personally responsible for that did seem a trifle presumptuous. So you then look at what you can control and instead suggest prompt and accurate briefing for the Chancellor’s monetary policy discussions. But that is a retreat into the minutiae of process. The life of public sector bodies is so complex and so constrained that it is very difficult to pitch the performance measures at the right level.

Then what do you do? One person in each Treasury division was to receive a performance-related bonus. In our division it went to Bill. We were all rather surprised by this and as a young Turk I was bold enough to challenge the senior officials on this peculiar decision. The reply — from the Treasury’s senior management, who were always hauling the rest of the public sector over the coals for their performance — was that Bill was a decent chap, but he was never going to be promoted, so giving him a performance bonus was a suitable consolation prize. That is what happens when central initiatives collide with Whitehall culture.

Politics and public policy are complex and difficult and worthwhile because there are so many different measures of success and there are trade-offs between them. You cannot simply suspend the trade-offs just to focus on one thing called the strategy. Michael Barber comes close to recognising this in an excellent discussion of what he calls the responsibility of stewardship. This is not the same as inertia or refusal to change. To me it seems like a Burkean respect for the wisdom that lies within an organisation and a recognition that we are custodians who want to pass it on better than we found it. Sometimes the very people working away in the middle of an organisation in the less glamorous jobs far removed from strategy are the ones who understand this responsibility best.

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