Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 293-299)




  293. If I could call the Committee to order for our final session of the day, where we turn to a subject that we have been looking at for some time which is called the New Centre. We have some people from the Centre. We have Professor Michael Barber, who is the Prime Minister's Chief Adviser on Delivery; Geoff Mulgan, Director of the Strategy Unit; and Wendy Thomson, who is the Prime Minister's Chief Adviser on Public Services Reform. Either individually or collectively, do you want to say anything to us before we speak to you?
  (Mr Mulgan) Hopefully you will have received a written submission.

  294. We have. We have not had a great chance to read it but we value it nonetheless.
  (Professor Barber) I just wanted to say one thing really which is that in your report in April 2001 you made a number of recommendations about the government at the centre and one of them was that you thought that the Treasury should not be the sole custodian of PSAs. In a sense the Delivery Unit is a response to that thought. Secondly, you said that the Cabinet Office should "become less of a bran tub, as described to us by Michael Heseltine, and more of a central strategist and performance monitor with real clout within government". I think the Delivery Unit is that performance monitor with real clout within government. I see it as very consistent with recommendations that you have made in the past.

  295. This is a very disarming initial statement where you have come to flatter us and say we are the architects of the New Centre. We recognise this kind of ploy!
  (Professor Barber) I was more making the point of great - or in my case less than great - minds; thinking alike.

  296. We want to try and get our heads around this whole delivery business if we can and see what some of the connections are. I am sorry if we start a bit simple-mindedly, but I think it is quite important to work this through and see what different bits of the system are all about. If departments are working properly we would not need a Delivery Unit, would we?
  (Professor Barber) The centre of any large organisation, and the government certainly qualifies as a large organisation, from where priorities are defined and led, needs a means of monitoring performance on the key priorities, in this case of the Prime Minister. I think any large organisation would want a central function, hopefully as in the case of the Delivery Unit, that is very small and in no sense micro-managing, but tracking the data and tracking the milestones in the plans that the departments have and making sure that when either the data or the milestones are going off track in some respect that something is being done about that. All I can say is that over the last year I think as the year has gone by departments have become more and more enthusiastic about the contribution we are making to helping them deliver. So I think that any large organisation would want that kind of performance monitoring function with real clout that you recommended last April and I think it is beginning to work. One of the signs I see of it beginning to work is departments and the Treasury coming to us and saying, "Can you do a bit more and help us with this?" It is a function that a large organisation would need and as departments improve at delivery I think we will find the relationship changes, but I do not think they will decide it is a function they do not want because we are helping them maintain consistency on the key priorities over a period of time, so we contribute to helping them do their job.

  297. But would the thinking be that as the departments get themselves together better that your role would effortlessly slide away?
  (Professor Barber) It is possible, I suppose, but I think you will find, for the reasons I have just given, that having a small performance monitoring function at the centre will turn out to be something that any Prime Minister would want and any centre of government wants and, indeed, that the departments delivering those priorities would find they wanted because it helped to bring the consistency behind their priorities, but the role will change. At the moment there is a focus on getting the planning right, ensuring that the plans are good, ensuring that the plans are being monitored, getting a delivery function working in each department, ensuring they track the data, and that they get good feedback. There is a process of scaling up their capacity to deliver. As that strengthens I think our role will change.

  298. Do departments have their own delivery units?
  (Professor Barber) They do not call them delivery units necessarily but increasingly they have that kind of function. One of the things we would want to do in the next phase, is to structure data from departments so that we are tracking it and the Permanent Secretary or the Secretary of State as well, if he or she wants, can track it so we are all monitoring performance from the same data and the same milestones in the plans for delivery.

  299. The more I listen to you though I wonder if tracking data is not a kind of substitute for delivery?
  (Professor Barber) It depends on the quality of the data. I have stressed the importance of tracking data and the milestones, so you are tracking the implementation of a plan and the milestones there are being met. The data should be going in the direction that people anticipated when they set the plan out and the data should represent real things going on out there in the health service or education service. The data is about crime going down or school performance going up or whatever it might be. The data is a representation of real delivery, not an alternative. The data should represent delivery, though not perfectly of course.


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