Book review: ‘Instruction to Deliver’ by Michael Barber

I came across Instruction to Deliver: Fighting to Transform Britain’s Public Services while browsing the politics section of Waterstones on Goodge Street. It immediately struck me as something interesting to read, a description of the delivery methods of the Blair government from 2001-2005 by the man who set-up and ran the Prime Minster’s Delivery Unit. Now note that I fundamentally disagree with centralised targets and top-down imposed processes that this framework employed, but I was still curious to see how the other side tried to do it.

Firstly, overall it was quite a good read. Easy to get along with, clear and nicely paced. It got into detail often enough to make it revealing but it never got bogged down. The style was chatty but serious about the subject and the people involved.

Basically, the Delivery Unit was a programme office for the targets that government focused on. They were in Transport, Health, the Home Office and Education. The Unit reported directly to Tony Blair. They were there to provide method for collecting and reporting data, monitoring progress towards the targets and building capacity in the departments.

The fact that the use of central targets is wrong for me didn’t take away from the basic project management messages that anyone trying to get things done need to reiterate on a regular basis.

  • Focus
  • Plan
  • Have method
  • Monitor
  • Communicate

The whole myth of “deliverology” that the Delivery Unit spawned, seems to me reading this book, simply effective project management.

Additionally, the parts that deal with the relationships with and between ministers, the prime minister, civil servants and the Unit staff itself are very interesting. There is a description of promises made to the Permanent Secretaries of each department. It was along the lines that we are here to help, we want to pass along the capacity to achieve and in so doing put ourselves out of work and that we are in it together.

I would recommend this book to anyone trying to enact big projects anywhere as a learning tool. I would, of course, warn readers away from the centralised targets and inspection regime they employed, but there is definitely something to learn here. It is just a shame that with the strong project skills described but with better method (e.g. understanding of systems, psychology and motivation) so much more could have been achieved in public services in the UK by now.



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