Daily catch-up: 'The whole point of setting a target is to distort activity' – Sir Michael Barber

The man who ran the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit for Tony Blair defends top-down targets

Public service reform was the subject of yesterday's "Blair Years" course at King's College, London, with special guest Sir Michael Barber, who was head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit 2001-05. 

The class was introduced by Michelle Clement, a star of the Policy Institute at King's who is working on a PhD based on Barber's diaries. She said that, although New Labour had done a lot of work on policy before the 1997 election, the "superstition" of its leading members, fearful of being seen to take the election for granted, meant that they had not done enough preparation on the mechanics of delivering their promises. By the end of his first term, Tony Blair realised he needed a Delivery Unit. 

Barber recalled an awayday at Chequers, the Prime Minister's country home, shortly after the 2001 election, at which it was agreed that the two things that would define the second New Labour term in government would be joining the euro and public service reform. On the second, the meeting agreed four principles that would apply:

One, set standards. Two, devolve power, authority and budgets as far to the front line as you can. Three, do away with demarcations between professions where they are not needed, such as between nurses and doctors or teaching assistants and teachers. Four, which was added during the course of the awayday, was choice. 

The government was in an unusual position of being able to plan for more public spending, but felt it had to make public services good enough to justify asking people to pay so much in tax. "Tony Blair wanted public services to be so good that people who could afford to go private would choose to use them." This almost defines Blairism, said Barber, and he said Andrew Adonis, head of the Policy Unit and later Schools Minister, once offered a more succinct definition: "To deliver for the middle class and abolish the working class."

The essential tool of the Delivery Unit was the stocktake, a meeting of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State of the delivery department that took place initially every two months and later every quarter to review progress against targets. Barber said that the first stocktake, in Education, actually took place in 1998, while he was still working as an adviser to David Blunkett.

The reforms to primary schools were important to Blair, but the stocktake, also at Chequers, "was not designed with delivery in mind", said Barber. Blunkett told him he was invited not because he was so important but because Blunkett wanted to ensure that Chris Woodhead, the Conservative-appointed Chief Inspector of Schools, couldn't dominate the conversation with the Prime Minister. "I'm blind and you're not," Blunkett told Barber. "My job was to man-mark Chris Woodhead and make sure he didn't talk to the Prime Minister on his own," said Barber. "I succeeded."

The rationale of the Delivery Unit was "quite simple really". It set targets by asking Blair, "What do you really care about?" It ended up with four areas: health, schools, transport and crime (which included false asylum claims). 

The key moment in the new Unit's life, said Barber, came towards the end of 2001: 

The NHS did what it always did and said, Oh my God winter's come and we're running out of money. And Gordon Brown wrote to agree to give it more money but on condition that it submitted a plan, which had to be agreed with the Delivery Unit, and that it understood that it was never going to get extra winter money again. And it didn't until a couple of years ago. 

Looking back, he felt that the Delivery Unit achieved 80 per cent of what it set out to do. He pointed to the report in The Times this month about private schools in crisis because of rising standards in state schools. He said that when he went to his GP in 2004 they complained about targets and bureaucracy but now they look back on 2004 as a "golden age".

Overall, he said the approach was a significant achievement by the Blair government, and had now been adopted by governments around the world. He had recently been to Canada to advise Justin Trudeau, the new prime minister:

In global history the idea is only just gaining traction. Many, many governments get this right in their second term. Mike Baird, the Liberal state premier in New South Wales, is now in his second term and he's absolutely got this. Trudeau says we're going to try to get it right first time. It is very tempting for a first-term prime minister to say, I'm going to trust my ministers to get on with it. Trudeau has said, I'm going to trust my ministers to get on with it, and I'm going to set up a delivery unit to help them.

In questions from students he was asked about the irreversibility of his changes. The Delivery Unit was absorbed into the Treasury in 2005 and then abolished in 2010. "The process is more important than the Unit," he said, pointing out that Cameron had reinvented it as the Implementation Unit, now backed by ministerial Implementation Taskforces. "The word delivery became identified as a Blairite concept. Deliverology was coined as a term of abuse. It seems centralising, but not to the citizen or the front-line unit."

Asked about the danger of setting unrealistic targets, such as Cameron's for net immigration, he said that was poorly set because it depended on variables outside the Government's control (or that were undesirable, such as giving people an incentive to leave the country). "I don't really go along with the 'under-promise and over-deliver' idea. Ambition can be galvanising. The most important was the 18-week maximum wait in the NHS in 2004." But didn't that distort clinical priorities, he was asked?

Distort is an interesting word. The whole point of setting a target is to distort activity. Yes, there is always the problem with gaming the system. There were people being kept in ambulances outside Accident and Emergency departments because the clock didn't start running until they got inside. Then you have got to ask, What are the ethics of the professional people doing this? 

He said of Blair's memoir, A Journey: "He showed a disarming honesty about his own learning process. He did learn a lot. I say that to any newly elected leader. It's really important. It's not written up in the journalism. He learned well, and that's absolutely vital." 

Asked how he assessed Blair's place in history, he said:

Since the war Attlee and Thatcher were more significant prime ministers than Blair. He is next in line. In terms of positive impact on the country, the benchmarks are Macmillan and Wilson. I don't know how Iraq will pan out. It is clearly not a success. He was great to work for, passionate about it. His government effected a big improvement in quality of life. There was a sense of purpose and optimism. 

Afterwards, Barber said he had sent copies of his latest book, How to Run a Government So That Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy, to all three main party leaders before the election. The only one to reply was David Cameron, who said he had read it with interest. Michael Gove, who had tried to recruit Barber as his permanent secretary at Education, has recently appointed him to the board of the Ministry of Justice. Barber said: "I am very glad that Michael Gove is now doing prison reform. New Labour could have done that."

The deliverology revolution goes on.