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.”
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
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
Announcements/Change on the ground
Experts' predictions for the general election
Experts' predictions for the general election
1/10 Andrew Hawkins (ComRes)
Just as the polls in 2010 pointed to no overall majority for any party, the overwhelming evidence points to Labour either being the largest party or getting a small majority, probably below 20. The Lib Dems and SNP should each win between 25 and 35 seats, with single-figure wins for both Ukip and the Greens.
2/10 Joe Twyman (YouGov)
I predict it will be close. I predict a few tremors, though earthquakes are unlikely. I predict the eventual winner may not be the direct result of public opinion, but instead the outcome of political negotiations. It’s too early to predict numbers given all the uncertainties surrounding (among other things) Ukip, the SNP and the Lib Dems. It is possible that it will be close between Conservative and Labour in terms of both votes and seats. The Lib Dems might retain 20-30 seats and the balance of power, despite small gains for the SNP, and at most half a dozen Ukip seats. Gun to my head? Labour minority government.
3/10 Ben Page (Ipsos MORI)
A mug’s game for this election months away, but my predictions in order of likelihood: most likely a hung parliament or coalition of some kind, closely followed by either a small Labour majority or an equally small Conservative majority. Given how close the parties are, the unknown performance of Ukip in key marginals, the effect of incumbency on Lib Dem losses, the final size of SNP surge and so on, to be more precise is simply foolish! Professor Tetlock, who found that forecasts by experts were only slightly better than throwing dice, weighs heavily upon me!
4/10 Rick Nye (Populus)
I can see a hung parliament, where Labour is the largest party in terms of seats – though not necessarily in terms of votes, with the Lib Dems having 30 seats or fewer, the SNP having up to 20 seats and Ukip having no more than five seats. In short, it’s going to get messy and stay messy for some time to come.
5/10 Nick Moon (GfK)
I can’t recall there ever being an election more difficult to predict than this one. I’m confident no party will have an overall majority, with the Tories probably the largest party but no single partner for a viable coalition, with the Lib Dems on 25 seats, the SNP 20, Ukip three, and the Greens one.
6/10 Damian Lyons Lowe (Survation)
We might have expected a workable Labour majority, were it not for the wild-card rise of the SNP in Scotland. Survation’s December Scottish polls suggest an almost complete wipeout by the SNP in Scotland and result in 40+ seat gains – mostly at Labour’s expense. My current predictions are: Labour the largest party by 40-50 seats over the Tories, no overall majority; Tories 235-255 seats; Lib Dems 20-30 seats; SNP 30-40 seats – maybe held back from potential support level by opposition incumbency and tactical voting by pro-unionist voters. Finally, Ukip, 5-10 wins from Conservatives, including Rochester and Clacton, and potentially a single Labour-seat surprise.
7/10 Michelle Harrison (TNS)
The battleground over the next three months is at the kitchen table – the difference between what the statistics tell us about the economy, the experience that Britons are having of managing their household budgets, and where – and if – they believe politics can make a difference. In this regard, the disconnect with the major political parties is more interesting than the horse race.
8/10 James Endersby (Opinium Research)
Our first poll for 2015 shows Labour one point ahead [see above], but polls four months out from an election are snapshots, not predictions. It would be extremely unwise for a pollster to make a firm prediction now. At the moment, Opinium’s estimate on polling day would be the Tories slightly ahead on vote share, but Labour slightly ahead on seats. These numbers are based on a uniform swing, with tweaks to Green and Ukip numbers based on local information: Labour 320 seats, Conservatives 271, Lib Dems 20, SNP 16, Plaid Cymru three, Greens two, Ukip four. A hung parliament with Labour potentially closer to a majority coalition than the Conservatives.
9/10 Martin Boon (ICM)
I’ve not recovered from the Scottish referendum campaign yet, and here we go with another wildcard strewn nail-biter. For me, Labour on 30 per cent will only fractionally nudge past their woeful 2010 showing – behind the Tories on 33 per cent – but enough to secure more seats (290 for Labour, 280 for the Tories) on boundary wackiness. The Lib Dems will secure 14 per cent of the vote and 35 seats; Ukip will also get 14 per cent, but that only gets them a couple of seats. As for Scotland, I’m bewildered, but as you asked I’ll say 30 seats for the SNP, which wipes out a breathing-space victory in seats for Labour.
10/10 Lord Ashcroft (Lord Ashcroft Polls)
Declined to take part. His spokeswoman said: “As he has said many times, his polls are snapshots not predictions.” Health warning: when The Independent on Sunday carried out a similar exercise in April 2010, at the start of that year’s election campaign, eight out of eight pollsters predicted a Conservative overall majority.
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, £16.99Reuse content