Meet Sir Michael Barber, the political delivery man

Governments have a spotty record on keeping their promises. Enter Michael Barber’s concept of ’deliverology.’
Sir Michael Barber. (Photograph by Samir Hussein)
Sir Michael Barber. (Photograph by Samir Hussein)
Sir Michael Barber. (Photograph by Samir Hussein)

Nothing is obvious, not even the things that should probably be obvious. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Sir Michael Barber makes a living helping governments do what they promised to do. There is a steady demand for his work, because in the normal course of things, governments often wind up doing something else entirely.

“Since time immemorial — certainly since the institutions of democracy in the 20th century—governments make commitments, get elected, and then struggle to deliver on their promises,” Barber said in an interview recently. “And that is a challenge.”

It’s a challenge that has changed Barber’s life. In 2001 Tony Blair managed to get re-elected as prime minister of the U.K., despite wildly uneven results in his first term. Blair noticed that his education minister, a steely blind Labour lifer named David Blunkett, had actually managed to make good progress against campaign commitments on literacy, higher-education attainment, and other areas. Blair poached Blunkett’s main adviser, Barber, and put him in charge of something called the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. Its goal was simple: Ensure the Blair government deliver on its promises.

“What I discovered with others in the Blair administration was that you could put in place some basic approaches that, if you followed them through, would make it much more likely that you’d deliver what you’d promised than otherwise.”

Labour leader Tony Blair holds up half-pints of "Blair Brew", a beer made especially for the election. (Ian Waldie/Reuters)
Labour leader Tony Blair holds up half-pints of “Blair Brew”, a beer made especially for the election. (Ian Waldie/Reuters)

Since he left the Blair government, Barber has honed these ideas into what he calls “deliverology,” the art of ensuring governments meet their goals. He’s become a global consultant spreading the gospel of deliverology to governments as far-flung as Australia, the Punjab, the U.S. state of Maryland, and to Ontario under the province’s former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty. When a large number of McGuinty-era Ontario staffers moved to Ottawa to work for the Trudeau Liberals, Michael Barber could not be far behind.

And so it came to pass that, during a three-day retreat for Trudeau’s cabinet in St. Andrews, N.B., in late January, Barber was in the room with the ministers for almost the entire time. Trudeau has appointed Matthew Mendelsohn, the former director of an Ontario think tank, as a senior public servant responsible for “results and delivery.” Mendelsohn’s job is modelled on the position Barber held with Blair.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Barber, the object of such ardent affection and attention from the new Trudeau crew, is equally impressed with this young Canadian government. “What they were saying was, ‘We know that often, including in the Blair case, it took a whole term for a new government to learn the disciplines of delivery and then get it right in the second term,’ ” Barber told Maclean’s. “ ‘But we want to get it right the first time.’ ”

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet arrive at Parliament Hill for their first Cabinet meeting after being sworn-in earlier in the day. November 4, 2015. (Prime Minister's Office)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet arrive at Parliament Hill for their first Cabinet meeting after being sworn-in earlier in the day. November 4, 2015. (Prime Minister’s Office)

The obstacles facing any new government are well-known. First, the usual constant barrage of unforeseen events. Second, the pressure to come up with new ideas rather than checking to see how the old plans are working out. Tony Blair was a sucker for a new idea. In his new book How to Run a Government, Barber calls Blair’s first-term administrative style “government by spasm.”

The alternative to spasm is an attempt to install a routine. A new government asks itself a series of basic questions. “One is: What are the priorities?” Barber asks. “The second is: If you succeeded in delivering a given priority, how would you know? What would success look like in 2019, at the end of this mandate?” The third question is, “How would you know at any given moment you’re making progress toward your goals?” This leads a delivery-oriented government to develop a set of indicators—usually publicly available and thus, if they’re heading in the wrong direction, acutely uncomfortable for the government. How many kilometres of roads have been paved to date, how many megatonnes of carbon went into the atmosphere, that sort of thing.

“It’s not tremendously exciting, but it’s really important, getting the priorities, the definitions of success, the trajectories, the data, the routines to monitor progress, and then the ability to solve problems as they arise,” Barber said. “Because however good you are at planning, you’re not going to get it right. The real world never works out exactly as you anticipate. So having routines to correct and adjust the plan all the time is important.”

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One element that helped bring Barber and Trudeau together is a common sense that ambition should not be a bad word in government. “There are times when doing little seems to work, and underpromising and overdelivering seems a good option,” Barber said. “But that’s certainly not the analysis of the Trudeau government, and certainly not the prospectus that they put to the Canadian people during the election. They said, ‘Actually, Canada needs big change, we want to build an inclusive, diverse Canada, we want some renewal of faith in democratic institutions, we want to reduce climate change, we need a big infrastructure upgrade.’ These are big challenges.”