Narrowing the gap between policy and delivery

Unless our government improves its capacity to deliver on its promises, we will not address the sense of disconnection between the people and those in office.

Adrian Brown
23 June 2015
Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley.

Martin O'Malley. Flickr/Third Way Think Tank. Some rights reserved.

Speaking at the Centre for Public Impact’s panel discussion last Thursday, Martin O’Malley set out the change in mindset required by leaders around the world. America’s latest candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2016 called for a new conversation about how governments get things done for their citizens. Delivery, as much as policy, needs to be at the centre of that conversation. At the centre, our mission is to redress this balance.

It is heartening to see the subject of delivery being given more prominence in the UK media in recent weeks. The government’s announcement of ten new implementation taskforces to keep tabs on its policy priorities is to be welcomed.

Too often, government and the media are driven by policy promises, with little conversation in government or with the public about the serious obstacles governments face when trying to put these into practice. These taskforces could well prove critical not only to the success of David Cameron’s second term in office, but to restoring citizens’ faith in the democratic process.

The nature of the public servant/citizen relationship goes to the heart of what it is to live in a democracy. Historically, many governments have had something of a free pass when it comes to showing that they have achieved value for money for taxpayers. To change this will require a shift in attitude. As another of our panellists put it last week, public officials need a “laser focus on their customers – the citizens.”

Could do better

Governments are clearly aware of the problem. Last week we released a survey of over 1,000 public officials in 25 different countries across five continents. It found that more than nine in ten public officials think governments could do better at achieving impact for their citizens. Until this changes, we will not address the sense of frustration and disconnection between the people and those in office.

How do we put this right? To answer this, we need to identify the key barriers governments face to effective delivery. Poor coordination between different government departments was identified by the public officials we surveyed as the biggest obstacle to delivery. This even trumped lack of financial resources. This is surprising, but also rather encouraging. We cannot change the country’s financial state, but there is much we can do to solve problems of coordination.

And indeed we must. For governments to deliver on their long-term promises, they need to carve out a space for delivery that is sheltered from the day-to-day frenzy of policy announcements, media demands and political crises. Sir Michael Barber likens the delivery function to playing the role of an American football quarterback. Other players block and tackle, which frees up space for the delivery unit to think strategically and get things done.

David Cameron’s taskforces can perform this role, but only if they are run properly. This means setting a small number of measurable goals, giving them Cameron’s personal mandate and appointing a strong and unwavering leader.

The UK arguably led the world on government implementation a decade ago but we've drifted ever since. We all have an interest in putting that right.

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