Making things happen with an implementation unit

A look back at how the UK Cabinet Office’s Implementation Unit went from buzzword to working with departments to get things done. Its model reflected a more pro-active problem solving approach than Australia’s Cabinet Implementation Unit’s early warning system model but thinking good thoughts isn’t enough, writes Chris Mullin, then deputy director of the Whitehall unit.

In the spring of 2012, implementation was hailed, depending on where people were coming from, as both the new paradigm of UK government and its new buzzword. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister looked back on their promises, to each other and the public, in the rose garden two years before. They restated the need for the government to roll up its sleeves to translate each commitment in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition’s programme for government into tangible success on the ground.

Permanent secretaries were already taking steps to make this happen. With their non-executive directors, they were transforming their departments to be more businesslike: cutting back on new policy initiatives, bringing in skills from outside to help deliver their major projects, and focusing at board level on the biggest implementation challenges and risks.

Another strong signal of intent was the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister’s decision to set up the implementation unit in the Cabinet Office, to oversee implementation across government, support departmental capability and provide informed, hard-hitting advice on specific implementation issues to those at the top. Under the initial leadership of Will Cavendish, this brought together all-of-government implementation with the implementation of public service reform, through Open Public Services, and deregulation, through the Red Tape Challenge.

A reborn Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit?

The birth of the UK IU may at first have raised eyebrows. It bore more than a passing resemblance to the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, which had been influential under Tony Blair but had not fitted the style or structure of the Coalition government. But those in the know quickly spotted some important differences that would allow the IU to become influential in today’s government.

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