12 July 2016

Delivery #nlpoli

Michael Barber headed a group of officials for then-Prime Minister Tony Blair that was responsible for getting Blair's major commitments through the government bureaucracy and into practice.

They called it the delivery unit and Barber has become a prophet of what he calls the science of delivery. In many ways, delivery is just a restatement of some very well-known ideas about planning and project management.  What Barber has done, though, is put those ideas into a new package that has captured the imagination of people who have been facing the same problem of getting a huge bureaucracy to implement a simple idea.  From outside, you'd think that's what government does.  The reality is  - more often than not - very different.  And that's why people interested in politics and public policy have been taken with Barber's ideas.

Barber's just been able to garner lots of attention around the world.  Dalton McGuinty's staff were big advocates of Barber's philosophy and they have carried that belief with them to Ottawa for Justin Trudeau.

Closer to home there's never been any such creature.  There's also no talk of creating one.  Go a step further.  There's never really been the equivalent here of the policy unit that British Prime Ministers have used since around 1970s to come up with ideas in the first place.  The closest anyone came was the Economic recovery Commission in the 1990s.  Usually, the task of handling policy from the political side of government has come  - if at all - from one or two people in the Premier's Office in among a bunch of other things. Some staffers carry the title of "policy advisor" but that hasn't always been occupied by someone providing policy analysis and support to the political side of things advice. More often than not,  the job of evaluating whether or not something is worthwhile gets done by the bureaucrats.

Leaving policy solely in the hands of bureaucrats is a fine idea in theory but experience shows that it isn't a sensible idea in practice.  The current crowd running the place have given us some excellent examples in just a few months of why that approach just doesn't work.  That was before the Premier's most senior policy advisor took a hike and left the rest of the over-worked bunch to divide up the files among themselves and carry-on with a "team-focused approach."

If you want specific examples, look at either the "information note" on a sugar tax or the note for cabinet about cancelling Muskrat Falls.  The former was prepared in 2012 and recycled in 2016 without any new information.  The note on Muskrat Falls was just a listing of arguments without supporting evidence.  Both were cases where officials produced notes that supported preconceived conclusions. They didn't thoroughly evaluate policy options and they paid no attention to political considerations.  Without having the documents in public, it's pretty easy to see that the levy,  the book tax, and the library closure policies were also examples of decisions taken with grossly inadequate policy assessment to back them up.

In those cases, we are looking at things the politicians ultimately decided not to do.  The quality of the staff work and how the decision got made is one thing.  There are all sorts of examples from the previous administration of how it took an inordinately long time to get decisions into action.  The Corner Brook hospital was promised in 2007 and thus far remains nothing more than a figment of someone's imagination. There is a long list of capital works projects that were delayed with costs in some cases doubling as a result.   Delivering on promises can be a real problem.

All of that is actually a long way to introduce a neat little chart that Barber uses to illustrate four broad categories into which initiatives may fall.  He graphs them with "boldness of reform" inherent in the initiative on the vertical axis and "quality of execution" along the horizontal.

Success is represented by either of the two blocks on the right hand. Relatively low boldness of the reforms coupled with high quality execution will improve outcomes. That's a win.  Extremely bold changes delivered quickly and effectively produces "transformation."  That's a huge win.

A really radical change of direction for government that is badly implemented with produce controversy with no positive impact.  That's bad.  And doing the same old stuff poorly is really where you are.  That would be bad too.

Barber's assumption is that a government wants to change things, wants to reform.  That's not an unreasonable assumption.  In fact, with the exception of Kathy Dunderdale, most governments do.

Where would you put Dwight Ball on this chart?

In the status quo block.

You can argue about where in that big space to put him, but frankly, the emphasis on keeping everything the same is reminiscent of Kathy Dunderdale.  That's really weird considering that:
  •  Ball is a new Premier,
  •  from a party completely different than Dunderdale's, and,
  •  strategically and tactically, the Conservatives were all wrong.
You'd think that a new government would be at least looking at the "improved outcomes" space.  That's sort of what the Liberals were promising:  more of the same but better.  At this point, the best we could say is that they haven't demonstrated that yet.

What's really interesting to consider, though, is that we live at a time when the actual situation the province is in screams for dramatic changes delivered as quickly and as effectively as possible. The way government operates, the level of dependence in the economy on government spending,  the bureaucracy itself all make it essential that government make dramatic changes from the course that got us up on the rocks in the first place.  Add Muskrat Falls in on top of that and you have a situation that is screaming for transformative leadership.

Look at the graph and you put the need right out in the uppermost right hand corner.  The government we have is right down where the two axes cross.  Bit of an exaggeration maybe, but not much of one.

If you want to understand why the current crowd are currently scraping off the bottom of the polls across the board - under 20% in each category according to CRA - then there's one way of looking at it. The situation demands revolutionary change delivered with extreme efficiency.  The government is delivering more of the same and, in general, they are doing it at about the same standard as the crowd they replaced.  

You get the sense from listening to Dwight Ball this past weekend that everything is just fine.  He's got two crucial staff positions empty.  In one case for sure he lost a highly capable individual.  In the other, he lost someone he knew wouldn't be around long but evidently Ball took no stapes to replace him.  His attitude seems bizarrely detached from reality.

That's just the policy side of things, the bit about running the government.  Over on the political side, Ball seems to think that spending some time on the barbecue and festival circuit interspersed with some funding announcements will put public opinion back on his side. If that was all it took, the Conservatives would be still running the province.