How to run a country: A 10 point manifesto for leaders who stand – and want to deliver

Sir Michael Barber turned promises into action for Tony Blair. Here are his tips for success

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Party leaders make wonderful election promises, but when they get into office they often say they pull the levers of power and nothing happens. Last week, David Cameron complained about the sheer “buggeration factor” of trying to get things done. Tony Blair said he bore the “scars on his back” from forcing change through an obstructive civil service. Now the parties are fine-tuning their manifestos, but do they actually know how to deliver?

Sir Michael Barber is the man who can unlock the secrets of turning promises into action. He was head of the Delivery Unit for Tony Blair, and is now advising the chief minister of Pakistan’s largest province on a plan to get seven million children into schools and to raise education standards. Here are his top 10 rules for leaders who want to make things happen.

Rule 1: Set a small number of well-designed targets

Even if, like Lord Salisbury, three times Prime Minister between 1885 and 1902, your target is to do nothing: “Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.”

Lord Salisbury: A master of doing nothing

Rule 2: Targets are important but not the point

Yes, it’s important that no one waits more than four hours to be seen and treated in an accident and emergency department, but that is not the point – the point is that patients should get high-quality treatment rapidly (and go home thinking that the service is a good use of taxpayers’ money). Similarly, a certain percentage passing a literacy test at age 11 is worthwhile too – but it’s not the point. The point is that children should leave primary education able to read and write well because those skills are essential – and because being able to do so will change their lives.

Rule 3: Set up a delivery unit

Call it what you like, but separate it from the rest of government. (Tony Blair had a Delivery Unit; David Cameron has an Implementation Unit; Shehbaz Sharif, chief minister of the Punjab, has a Performance Monitoring and Implementation Unit.) A delivery unit has to be completely trusted by the leader, small, optimistic and happy to be out of the limelight, giving credit to others.

Rule 4: The targets approach will get you from awful to adequate

You can mandate adequacy but you cannot mandate greatness; it has to be unleashed.

Rule 5: Prepare a plan that is good enough to get started

Dwight Eisenhower masterminded Overlord (Hulton Archive/Getty)

Dwight D Eisenhower, known as Ike to his friends, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, was responsible for planning and implementing one of the most challenging military campaigns of all time – the Allied invasion of Normandy known as Operation Overlord. Reflecting on the whole process long after these momentous events, he remarked, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”

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).

Rule 6: Government by routine beats government by spasm

Government by spasm/Government by routine

Everything matters/Clear priorities

Vague aspiration/Specification of success

Crisis management/Routine oversight


Post-hoc evaluation/Real-time data

Massaged impressions/An honest conversation

Remote and slow/In touch and rapid


Hyperactivity/Persistent drive


Announcements/Change on the ground


Rule 7: Take all the excuses off the table 

We’re already doing it/How come we have a problem then?

You’re asking the impossible/They’ve done it before in France/US/China

It’s impossible and we’re already doing it/I promise you I’ve heard this combination of excuses more than once from officials. They can’t both be true

It’s very risky/Not as risky as doing nothing

There will be unintended consequences/Let’s keep it under review

By intervening you are distracting us from delivering/If you were delivering, we wouldn’t be intervening

Rule 8: Learn actively from experience

Failure is a great teacher. In the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, we learned from Benjamin Zander, the great conductor, to respond to a blunder or reports of failure with the phrase “How fascinating!”. That way, we could get people to talk openly about the causes of the problems as well as the symptoms. Crucially, we could persuade them that there was a problem and it needed fixing. Our next line was simple: “We’re not going away until it’s fixed.” Once people realised we meant it, we could establish a collective focus on solving the problem, whatever it was.

Rule 9: Persist (but don’t expect the credit)

The wrong way to achieve a legacy is to claim: “My predecessor was an idiot and my successor is a traitor.” The right way is to take care first of two things: don’t make big mistakes, especially of the personal scandal variety; and don’t ruin something good that you inherited even if it was from a government of a different political persuasion. (So says Julio Frenk, the former minister of health of Mexico.)

Rule 10: There is no substitute for sustained, disciplined political leadership

‘How to Run a Government So That Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy’ by Sir Michael Barber, published by Allen Lane, £16.99