A policy delivery unit for innovation, with Ian Watt in charge

By David Donaldson

December 15, 2015

Many a minister has seen their grand plans undone by undercooked execution — David Cameron has complained about the “buggeration factor” of trying to get things done, while the implementation failures of the pink batts scheme will remain a defining memory of Kevin Rudd’s years.

Implementation, a crucial policy element many complain tends to be ignored by politicians, is experiencing something of a revival of late.

Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne has announced the formation of a policy delivery unit within the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science to see through the realisation of the gamut of policies in the innovation statement. It will be headed up by former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ian Watt.

It’s also a second lease on life for a second departmental secretary under Malcolm Turnbull: like Watt (pictured left with former PM Tony Abbott), Martin Parkinson was vanquished from Treasury under Abbott only to be resurrected as the new head of the Prime Minister’s department.

The new unit will be modelled on former British leader Tony Blair’s Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. The PMDU, which operated from 2001 until it was abolished by current PM David Cameron in 2010, was designed to monitor progress and bolster capacity to deliver the government’s key commitments.

John Howard created a cabinet implementation unit based on the Blair model, while Rudd appointed a coordinator general to deliver the stimulus package in response to the global financial crisis.

After getting rid of Blair’s PMDU, Cameron later created an implementation unit within the cabinet office to oversee delivery across government, support departmental capability and provide advice on specific implementation issues to those at the top.

Pyne’s version will be narrower in focus than those. He said its “only job is the nuts and bolts of delivering this agenda across the economy” and it will co-ordinate across government departments involved in delivering the innovation statement.

The unit sits under, and supports the work of, the National Innovation and Science Implementation Committee, chaired by Watt. Committee membership comprises deputy secretaries from relevant departments and agencies with direct implementation responsibilities under the National Science and Innovation Agenda.

‘The missing science of delivery’

The original British delivery unit’s decade of existence has led to a growing literature on what former PMDU chief Michael Barber called “the missing science of delivery”. He pinpoints six defining features of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit model:

  1. Set clear priorities with measurable goals;
  2. Establish a dedicated unit focused on getting those things done;
  3. Use data and trajectories to drive progress;
  4. Build routines around those priorities (such as stocktake meetings, or monthly notes to the Prime Minister);
  5. Help with problem-solving; and
  6. Persistence — stick with those priorities despite the temptations in government to shift the agenda.

Politicians tend to think of implementation as being automatic, Barber said while visiting Australia earlier this year — but it’s actually the hardest part. The important thing is planning.

“I often say — this is not a research finding by the way — that getting the policy right is 10% of the task. It’s difficult, but it’s only 10% of the task. Ninety per cent is implementation …

“The problem with bureaucracies is, actually they’re very good at writing plans, they’re more like essays with glossy covers and the occasional number. But they’re not plans in the Eisenhower sense. He realised that plans were actually useless. It’s the planning that is indispensable.”

In his book on his learnings from running the delivery unit — How to run a government — Barber makes the case for central implementation units:

“First, a delivery function there can make sure that small amounts of the leader’s time can be applied systematically and routinely to the identified priorities. Second if there is no delivery or implementation function there, then the centre is likely to focus on politics strategy and policy, and not take implementation seriously enough …

“Third, a delivery unit can ensure that all the relevant departments and agencies contribute to achieving a government goal, thus overcoming the lack of collaboration between departments or agencies (the silo effect) that is so strong in most democracies. Fourth, a delivery function can become a centre of expertise on delivery and implementation; it can learn lessons which might apply to several departments or to the entire government machine, which simply can’t be learned otherwise.”

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