Book review: How to run a Government, by Michael Barber

I wrote a review of Michael Barber’s book, How to Run a Government, for the Spectator a few months ago. Here is the text.

One fact check. Early in the book Michael writes that Magnus Carlsen, the world chess champion, can beat the best chess computers because ‘the eagle of computer analysis soars to a great height, and then the wren of human judgement, sitting on the eagle’s back, can fly that bit higher.’ Alas the wren of human judgement slides off the back of the eagle and falls – plunk – to the ground. The best chess computers now play at a level far above any human, their tactical battles like light-sabre duels on mountain tops, one false move spelling instant death.

On a connected theme, it is interesting that experiments with humans + brilliant computer versus brilliant computer show that strategic use of computers by humans can lead to better performance than the computer can manage alone. I don’t know the results from the latest experiments – Kasparov wrote a fascinating piece in the NYRB a while ago – but if this holds it will give clues about other possible man-robot collaborations.

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How to Run a Government, Michael Barber

Allen Lane, pp.316, £16.99, ISBN: 9780241004975

In 2001, Tony Blair took Sir Michael Barber from his perch as special adviser in the Department for Education and brought him into Downing Street. Once there Barber set up Blair’s ‘Delivery Unit’ and oversaw his attempts to reform public services. He then moved to the McKinsey consultancy where he cloned his unit for governments around the world.

He has now written a book, How to Run a Government, about what he calls ‘deliverology’ — an ‘emerging science of delivery’. It is part memoir and part a ‘how to’ manual describing ‘a set of processes that enables governments to deliver ambitious goals’.

Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s adviser, is reported saying to Barber six months after the 2010 election: ‘I know we disparaged targets and delivery and all that when we were in opposition, but now we’ve been here a while, we have a question: how did you do it?’ Barber replied: ‘You’ve learned fast. It took Blair four years to learn the same thing.’ His book is an extended answer to Cameron and others who arrive in Downing Street ignorant of how to get anything done.

Barber summarises wisdom from hundreds of books about effective management. He explains the various systems his team have developed to take a politician’s agenda, break it into a series of priorities and processes, then chase each one relentlessly.

I have worked in Whitehall and dealt with a decrepit Downing Street and Sir Humphrey at his worst. I am sure that new ministers would learn from this book. Many will be more successful if they turn over their agenda to Barber’s consultants.

However, this book is not a manual on ‘how to run a government’. As Barber says, his approach is based on the assumption that his team ‘always knows more about what “good” or “bad” looks like in other, similar organisations’ than officials and MPs do. This is the heart of the problem. It is inconceivable that Barber’s consultants could go into a brilliantly managed company like Apple and know more than the CEO about ‘what good or bad looks like in similar organisations’.

His team gets results because they are picking very low-hanging fruit— they are providing what should be minimal competence for people who do not know how to prioritise and are managerially incompetent. He recalls realising that after all the promises made in the 2000 Spending Review ‘there was no plan’ to achieve them. This was ‘a seminal moment’ for him, and he started the necessary planning, but as he says: ‘Why wouldn’t any minister with a sense of purpose [do] this in the first couple of months in office?’ Quite.Barber, a nice man who believes the best of politicians, does not answer his own question.

He writes that the military’s success in dealing with the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak showed Blair the wonders of Cobra, the No. 10 disaster response system. When Blair faced a media storm over asylum seekers, he therefore turned to Cobra. For Barber, this is an example of successful ‘deliverology’. However, a prime minister using the terrorist crisis response system to grip a media storm over basic policy is not an example to be copied. It is a symptom of Whitehall’s profound dysfunction. It is similar to the way in which the London ambulance service now regularly uses the protocol for coping with terrorist attacks just to get through the day. It is a sign of a broken system, not a prescription for ‘how to run a government’.

Unfortunately, Barber explicitly advises MPs: ‘Don’t depend on generic civil service reform because you don’t have the time.’ This will get a very loud cheer from Sir Humphrey, but if we want serious government then we need fundamental changes in the way ministers and officials are selected, trained, paid, managed and held accountable. We need to reshape institutions so that they do not depend on sprinkling a layer of consultants on a broken bureaucracy to gerrymander management processes that ought to be in entry-level training for junior officials.

Barber’s ‘deliverology’ is better than government by spin and gimmick, but is only a recipe for forcing a few priorities through routinely incompetent bureaucracies. It is not a recipe for coping with the economic and technological forces, from drones to genetic engineering, that are disrupting society faster than our institutions can adapt. This requires replacing many Whitehall institutions with ones that can change as quickly as the world around them changes.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £13.99 Tel: 08430 600033