'How to Run a Government', by Michael Barber - Review

By Cummings, Dominic | The Spectator, March 28, 2015 | Go to article overview

'How to Run a Government', by Michael Barber - Review


Cummings, Dominic, The Spectator


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. …

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