Getting results: six factors for a successful delivery unit

By David Donaldson

May 11, 2017

Since the creation of the first one in the United Kingdom in 2001, government delivery units have been established as far afield as Albania and Sierra Leone, as well as Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the Commonwealth government.

Delivery units are small teams that are generally given the task of monitoring a handful of the government’s highest policy priorities and making sure they’re on track. They gather and analyse a constant stream of performance data, and investigate and intervene if desired results are not materialising on the ground.

Some delivery units also scrutinise policy proposals to see whether implementation plans are feasible, and address delivery capability gaps in the public sector workforce through activities such as training and co-designing implementation plans.

Starting with the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in Tony Blair’s government 16 years ago, they now support heads of government in 25 countries, with others at the local level. The Howard government was an early adopter, setting up the Cabinet Implementation Unit in 2003. The development sector, with its emphasis on evaluation and outcomes, has become a big supporter of the model for developing states.

But a trend while new delivery units continue to open, several have also been shuttered out of concerns about their efficacy — as did Australia’s Cabinet Implementation Unit, following its failure to provide any warnings about the design or early roll out of the pink batts debacle, which led to the deaths of four people.

The decade and a half of varied experiences with setting up and running delivery units means it’s possible to examine the success factors, which UK’s Institute for Government has done in a new report.

It isn’t just a question of getting value for money. “When units lose influence, for example, their continued existence can cultivate a false sense of security that government projects and programmes are being properly monitored.”

An example of this can be found in Australia: the Cabinet Implementation Unit’s traffic light monitoring system leading into phase two of the pink batts scheme was green, indicating there was no cause for concern, a fact noted by the royal commission into the home insulation program.

Emulating successful delivery units

Given how many actors tend to be involved in delivering results, it can difficult to work out exactly what delivery units contribute — which is ironic, given their focus on ensuring other bits of government are hitting their targets.

The Institute for Government points to a couple of clear examples of success:

  • Infant mortality in the American state of Maryland dropped from 8 to 6.5 per thousand live births between 2008 and 2014, after it became a focus for the Governor’s Delivery Unit. The unit’s data analysis enabled resources to be targeted at high-risk areas and groups, with regular stocktake meetings convened to review progress with the governor and heads of relevant agencies.
  • Hospital waiting times in the UK fell between 2001 and 2003, after the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit began tracking and investigating delays in patients’ ‘journeys’ through the system. The number of people waiting more than a year for surgical procedures fell from over 40,000 to below 10,000.

They’re not always effective, but the Institute for Government counsels reform over abolition. The minister responsible for this decision to abolish the dysfunctional Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in the UK, Oliver Letwin, has since called it “a terrible mistake”. The Cameron government reinstated the unit in 2012. Letwin says:

“I very often found, even at the very end, that the small team in the Implementation Unit who were very clear-minded — and we hired people who were specifically very clear-minded — could do more in a few weeks than a whole Department had done in a year to get straight why something was going wrong. … it is actually necessary to get some data and find out what exactly is going on.”

Alongside Letwin, “a number of ministers have also credited delivery units with helping them to understand why results were not materialising on the ground”, the report notes. The think tank has settled on six factors it believes are needed for a successful delivery unit:

  1. Make sure there is strong, highly visible political backing.
  2. Commit to a tightly defined remit.
  3. Select a physical location close to a political sponsor.
  4. Adopt the right hiring strategy, organisational structure and leadership model.
  5. Ensure cross-government ownership of the delivery unit’s results agenda.
  6. Put routines in place to review effectiveness and refresh operations.

Political support is very important. Inevitably there will be pushback and resistance when an outside office comes in to disrupt how public servants are working, so clear backing from the government can mean the difference between private grumbles and bureaucratic stonewalling. Even the physical location of the unit can send signals as to how seriously line agencies need to take delivery units interventions.

Support from bureaucratic leadership is necessary to get anywhere. New South Wales gains praise in the report for establishing a coalition of departmental priority leads who meet four times a year to review progress. The premier attends alternate meetings, helping to underscore the importance of their collective leadership. Canada appoints data leads and chief results and delivery officers, who are tasked with working across government on the delivery of the prime minister’s horizontal priorities and supporting the implementation of ministerial mandate letters within their own departments.

Keep an eye on staffing. Being too closely identified with the previous regime is of course a risk. Don’t do what Indonesia’s coalition government did and appoint a former attorney general who had previously called for the vice president’s political party to be dissolved as head of the unit. Also avoid Tanzania’s example of almost only hiring senior personnel and then leaving it to consultants to do the analysis work normally reserved for more junior staff.

Hiring too many outsiders can leave the unit without an understanding of how government works, but too many internal hires can lead to a dearth of new perspectives.

An overly broad remit is one of the institute’s “warning signs” for bad design — too many priorities means nothing is a priority.

Productive relationships with the departments charged with delivering the results are vital. While Australia’s Cabinet Implementation Unit was seen by some as a tick-the-box exercise, an equivalent unit in Sierra Leone took the approach of scolding departments without providing the support they needed.

Delivery units should help develop capacity in partner departments to ensure the changes are sustainable. The data-tracking systems, delivery plans and performance metrics required by delivery units are both resource-intensive to set up and need culture shift within governments. Many of the heads of delivery units interviewed for the report spoke of the scale of the challenge they face. As one put it:

“I think we underestimated the capacity building that was going to be done with data and data systems. A lot of time was spent engaging with teams just getting them on board with what is an outcome, how do we define an outcome properly.”

The institute believes a failure to regularly review units’ functioning and adapt to changing circumstances can also trigger their decline. Australia’s Cabinet Implementation Unit “was initially very effective at adjusting its activities to suit the leadership styles of different prime ministers,” it states — but this resilience waned over time. As one executive put it: “[M]odels generally need to be constantly refreshed or reviewed to see whether they are meeting the needs of the government. … I think the CIU [Cabinet Implementation Unit] would have benefited from such a refresh or review in its life.”

By following the recommendations in the report, the institute hopes governments will be able to do things properly.

“Whether delivery units live up to the current hype and actually help improve government performance depends entirely on getting their set-up right.”

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