Book Review: How to Run A Government: So That Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy by Michael Barber

The following book review is brought to you by Northwest Territories Chapter of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada.

As part of its Book Review Forum, the IPAC NWT Regional Group is pleased to present the following review: Barber, Michael. (2015). How to Run A Government: So That Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy. UK: Penguin Press. 

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“The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts the surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.” George Bernard Shaw

Is deliverology truly something new or simply project management under another guise? This is the question about Sir Michael Barber’s book, which has been the talk of federal circles since the 2015 election.

Governments typically come into power on the wave and enthusiasm of a new policy platform, yet far too often that élan fizzles out at the implementation stage.  Policy and implementation are of course two sides of the same coin, each relying on one another to ensure value. This is why governments the likes of Tony Blair’s in the United Kingdom and Dalton McGuinty’s in Ontario have consciously made delivery their key focus. As Mario Cuomo once observed, “you campaign in poetry, but govern in prose”.

But how does one translate an ambitious election policy platform into results for citizens? How do you get a bureaucracy effectively seized with delivering ambitious results? Enter deliverology.  Typically, this approach charges a central agency with the responsibility of setting priorities and overseeing the bureaucracy’s progress on them.  Beyond monitoring, Barber’s approach demands we inculcate officials with an ethic of delivery until it slowly but surely pervades through all departments.

How effectively a bureaucracy can institute an ethic of delivery depends on its health. A public service must first be ready to deliver.  Sometimes new governments will inherit a culture marked by “‘strategic atrophy’, under which ‘established assumptions’ inhibit the formulation of ‘new visions’ and ‘discount anything that challenges’ the status quo” (29). Sometimes things need shaking up; hence the recent trend where the federal government has revamped its senior ranks with younger and perhaps bolder executives. The pressure to deliver must apply to all and it might very well benefit from looking at old approaches in new ways.

One of the refreshing things about Barber’s work is its holistic and human bent. For example, when discussing the importance of considering perverse or unintended consequences when establishing a given target, he underscores the importance of being a prophet armed with data and facts, rather than simply a prophet. Those likely to resist the setting of targets are certain to make worst-case arguments about them and guaranteed to fill any lingering communications vacuum. Ambitious projects succeed not only on the basis of a work breakdown structure, but in large part as a result of the human face that marshals them through to completion.

Indeed, beyond all the useful tables, figures and specific advice, Barber reminds us that it is carefully involved leaders who successfully help drive delivery. “When I read in business strategy books that leaders deal with ‘the big picture’ and ‘overarching strategy’ while delegating all the detail, I groan. Serious leaders never do that, because they understand Ike’s point. Their challenges are not to avoid the messy, ground-level reality, but to be selective in deciding when, where and how to intervene and in which details; and of course to build an effective team (at which Ike, incidentally, excelled)” (106).  It is of course people who solve problems.

Clearly an individual of considerable experience, Barber sprinkles his book with useful real-life and applied anecdotes. For instance, when discussing the importance of taking responsibilities for outcomes, he recounts how David Blunkett boldly said that if they failed to meet a 2002 literacy target, that his “‘head was on the block’” (23). When Barber suggested that might be imprudent, Blunkett cogently replied “‘it is important that everyone takes responsibility, including me. And, by the way, if I go down, you’re coming with me’” (ibid). One must ensure that responsibility for the goal cascades out and is held at all levels.

Indeed, each of us must play a personal role in fostering a successful culture of delivery. For instance, when trying to achieve an ambitious goal, Barber asserts that there are five key questions for us to ask:

  1. “What are you trying to do?
  2. How are you trying to do it?
  3. How, at any given moment, will you know whether you are on track?
  4. If you are not on track, what are you going to do about it?
  5. Can we help?” (45)

Armed with these questions, one can—at any time—assess a project’s likelihood of delivery and ask the pointed questions necessary for seeing it through.

With its intent to widely beget cultures of delivery, Barber’s contribution is timely insofar as we are observing a marked convergence between behavioural economics, design-thinking, project management and policy-making. Taken together, these fields teach us that all such work must be user-centric, assumptions-tested and doggedly marshalled through to implementation to achieve improved results. For all these reasons, Barber’s concept of deliverology is far more than a rehashing of project management.

Overall, Barber lays out a compelling road map of how to create a work culture that strives for delivery, enhances public sector productivity, and ultimately leads to a more efficient management of public finances.  The implication for government administrators in the North is that policy shops—and those accountable for commitments of any kind—should be looking themselves in the mirror and assessing whether the concept of delivery is sufficiently foregrounded in their work.

CHRISTIAN ALLAN BERTELSEN is the Regional Director, Canadian Coast Guard Arctic Region. A proud northerner, his research interests focus on identity, discourse and ethics.  This review was prepared for Northern Public Affairs magazine by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s (IPAC) NWT Regional Group.

Please note the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of IPAC or the Government of Canada.


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