Examination of Witnesses(Questions 486-499)|
THURSDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2003
486. Could I welcome our witnesses. As part
of our inquiry into both the targets within government and what
we call the new centre we are delighted to have Professor Michael
Barber, who is the Chief Adviser in the Prime Minister's Delivery
Unit and Nick Macpherson who is the Managing Director of the Public
Services Directorate in the Treasury. You are clearly the people
we need to speak to. Michael Barber, you have entertained us before
and we are very glad that you are here again. Would either or
both of you like to say something by way of introduction?
(Professor Barber) I would, if I may.
I would like to start with the overall vision which I know you
are familiar with but it is worth stating. The Government wants
to achieve high quality public services which means rising average
standards of performance across those public services and particularly
it means faster progress in the most disadvantaged communities
so as to ensure equity. In the pursuit of that vision there are
significant sustained levels of investment going into the public
services for which the tax payer expects to see a return. Targets
and league tables and what you call government by measurement
are essential parts of an overall approach to achieving that vision.
As John Browne put it in his evidence to you, they are part of
a tapestry that drives improvement. They cannot be understood
in isolation from that wider overall approach. I would like to
spend a couple of minutes describing how they fit into that overall
approach. If you think of it as having six elements, the first
is that clear national standards and clear targets are what we
want to achieve but also the goals we want to achieve over the
next view years. The national standards are set out in documents
like the Health Service National Service Frameworks or the framework
for teaching literacy in the Department of Education and Skills.
The targets are set out in the PSA white paper of last summer.
The targets provide the consistency in terms of direction, the
ambition, the equity, but also the flexibility for front line
units. That is what we want to achieve. It is up to you at the
front line how to achieve it. The second element, therefore, is
devolved funding and responsibility. Front line unitswhether
it is PCTs or schools or local authorities through local PSA arrangementshave
increased funding devolved to them to take responsibility for
achieving those national standards and targets and whatever local
targets and standards they want to achieve in addition. The third
element is good bench marking data and measurement of progress
against performance indicators. If you look at the police performance
monitors, the health quarterly monitoring report, the education
autumn package which compares each school to other schools in
a bench mark group and all other schools in the country, that
bench mark data enables each front line unit to compare its performance
with the performance of other similar units across the service
and decide where it needs to improve and where it is already comparable
with the best. Out of that flows the fourth point, which is best
practice transfer. By looking at the units within a given service
that are doing well, you can identify the best practices, the
things that work in terms of delivering outcomes. There are a
number of arrangements being put in place to enable that best
practice transfer to occur and enable schools to learn from each
other, PCTs and Health Trusts can learn from each other; police
forces and basic command units learn from each other. If you look
at the National College for School Leadership, the modernisation
agency, Centrex (which is the police training outfit) and the
investment which is going into professional development, there
are arrangements in place to enable best practice transfer. Having
set the standards, devolved the funding, provided the bench marking
data and enabled best practice transfer, the fifth part of the
framework says that services should be held to account and the
units within the service should be held to account. As you know,
that is done through inspection arrangements in each of the services
I have mentioned and through published data. Police data was published
a week or so ago; school league tables are familiar to the Committee;
the star ratings are familiar to the Committee. The sixth point
is that on the basis of that accountability there are rewards
for those who succeed, whether it is earned autonomy, foundation
status or whatever it might be; assistance for those struggling
effectively in difficult circumstances; and consequences for those
who are evidently under-performing. The modernisation agency programme
follows up the star rating. You have talked to Mr Filochowski
about his work in Bath, or the LEA intervention programme that
followed OFSTED inspections in the last parliament are examples
of the consequences. That framework is driving improvement with
some ambition and some urgency. Obviously there are risks with
any such ambitious programme and the Government needs to learn
constantly. I think Gordon Prentice said in one of your previous
sessions that it was important that the Government was a learning
organisation and that is certainly an essential part of our work.
What I want to finish by saying is that this overall framework
of challenge and support is already delivering results. Crime
is down significantly; secondary school standards are improved;
primary school standards are improved; mortality rates in cancer
and coronary heart disease are greatly improved; waiting times
are down. Targets, league tables, government by measurement areand
will remainessential parts of an overall approach to delivering
those kinds of real world outcomes that matter to the citizens
of this country.
487. Thank you very much. Did you want to add
(Mr Macpherson) No, thank you.
488. That is a very useful overview to get us
going. When you came to see us last year, Michael, you did say
that your new role heading up the Unit in the Cabinet Office was
very much reflecting what this Committee had said before about
the pivotal role of the Cabinet Office in this whole operation.
There have been some reports suggesting that your relocation from
the Cabinet Office to the Treasury signifies a different way of
doing business. Is this true?
(Professor Barber) No, not really. We are not in any
way changing our position from being part of the Cabinet Office.
We are moving staff into the Treasury building. There is an important
distinction. We are not becoming part of the Treasury, but we
doas will become evident over the next hour and a halfcollaborate
very effectively with Nick and his people in the Public Services
Directorate and the Treasury so the business gain of being co-located
with them will be huge. However, we remain part of the Cabinet
Office. Indeed, one of the big benefits of Andrew Turnbull's first
few months in office is a growing collaboration generally, not
just between the Delivery Unit and the Treasury, but between the
Cabinet Office and the Treasury as a whole.
489. You are Mr Targets.
(Professor Barber) According to the Independent
490. What I am quite interested in finding out
is quite how you fit into the scheme of things. You are a progress
chaser, your job is to make sure that departments meet these targets
that the Government has set. Could you tell us in general how
you go about doing that?
(Professor Barber) The targets are set, as you know,
in the PSA process as part of the spending review and in setting
those targets we support the Treasury in its discussions with
departments about the nature of those targets. Once the targets
are set what we ask departments to discuss with us is their plans
for achieving those targets. We do not ask them to write a plan
for the delivery unit. We do not ask them to do any work for us.
We ask them to show us the plans and discuss with us the plans
they are making to achieve the objectives to which their secretary
of state has signed up. The two essential elements of those plans
that we are most interested in are first of all the key milestones,
what are the steps they are going to take to achieve the goal?
Secondly, the trajectory; how do they think the data will change
between now and whenever the target is set for (2005/2006)? On
the basis of those two elements we track progress. We chase progress,
to use your phrase. Periodically the Prime Minister holds stock-taking
meetings with the relevant secretary of state. Those meetings
involve a discussion of what the data shows, what progress has
been made with the milestones and the trajectories. Then decisions
about whether to proceed with what is being done if there are
problems arisingwhich is inevitable in the real worldas
your plans unfold, then there is a discussion as to how that problem
might be solved, what corrective action needs to be taken. Very
often that is action that the department will take on its own,
sometimes the department welcomes assistance from us in that.
Periodicallyroughly every six monthswe do a kind
of overview report for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor on
progress with the key outcomes. Increasingly in the process that
I have described, we are working in very close collaboration with
491. That is helpful, but can we take it further.
Not all targets are the same; they do not all have the same priority,
do they? I notice that when the Prime Minister introduced you
at his press conference last July he explained to the assembled
throng what you do. He said, "Essentially the Delivery Unit
assesses data and monitors progress constantly on a few agreed
priority areas in each department". How do you identify these
few agreed priority areas?
(Professor Barber) The best way to get into that is
to look at the white paper that was published on the PSA targets
in July, about the same time as that press conference actually.
What it says in there is that the Delivery Unit was working on
the key areas of health, education, law and order and transport,
helping those departments with some particularly challenging targets.
Following the 2002 spending review its remit will be extended
to look at one or more targets in a range of other domestic service
delivery departments. Following conversations with colleagues
in the Treasury and the Prime Minister, we are working on the
bulk of the targets in the four key areas that I have just described,
and then on a selection of targets in other domestic service delivery
departments. Does that answer your question?
492. If I asked you to give us a list of the
key targets that you are working on at the moment, could you do
(Professor Barber) Yes, we could. I do not know whether
or not you want me to recite them now, but I can certainly provide
you with a list along those lines.
493. I ask that because when I asked that as
a parliamentary question earlier this month the minister would
not tell me.
(Professor Barber) Well I can provide you with a list
of targets we are working on at the moment.
494. Government is simpler if we do it like
this. If you could let me have that I think it would be very helpful
to see which targets they are and then look at the assessments
that you are making. When the Prime Minister introduced you he
talked about how there was not only a hierarchy of targets but
a hierarchy of actions that follow the target pursuing business.
He said there were four levels and he described them. Rather than
me tell you what you are doing, why do you not tell us what you
(Professor Barber) I have just described to you the
process that takes you through the targets, the milestones, the
trajectories, the stock take and then problem solving corrective
action. In any businessparticularly in the business of
governmentthere are different levels of problem. Some of
the problems are simply that a deadline has been missed or a milestone
has not been achieved. Very often at what we call level onethis
is really internal language to help us describe what the problems
are likeit might simply require a phone call from me to
a permanent secretary saying that a milestone has been missed,
there is a conversation and then something is done about it and
no further action is needed. It is just a bit of progress chasing.
What we call a level two problem is where there is a problem where
the answer is not obvious and the department would like us to
work with them on it. There are a number of times where we collaborate
with the department in helping to solve that problem and they
very much welcome that. Levels three and four are levels where
the Prime Minister himself wants to get involved. They are quite
often where the problem is intractable but also quite often where
it cuts across more than one departmentbut not alwaysand
he might want, in addition to the stock take meetings, to hold
particular meetings on that particular issue periodically until
he thinks progress is being made with the problem. What we call
a level four problem would beas the Prime Minister reacted
on street crime about this time last yearwhere the figures
were going very much in the wrong direction and the Prime Minister
wanted to give intense focus to the issue until those figures
were brought under control which, indeed, they were by September.
(Mr Macpherson) Can I just add something there. It
is important to focus on why the Prime Minister gets involved
with targets. I do not think that it is fair to say that there
is a hierarchy of targets in that ones which Michael Barber's
unit looks at are necessarily more important than other ones such
as unemployment or child poverty or whatever. Where the Delivery
Unit does get involved is where the degree of challenge lends
itself to the sort of interventions which Michael sets out and
where prime ministerial focus can actually improve the chances
of targets being met.
495. Thank you for that, but when we have talked
to people running public services they absolutely know that there
is a hierarchy of targets. They talk to us about P45 targets,
particularly if they work in the health field. The idea that all
these targets have some kind of equality of importance and treatment
is simply not the case, is it?
(Professor Barber) Nick's point is that the fact that
the Delivery Unit works on a target is in relation to its challenge
and whether it is susceptible to the kind of analysis of work
that we do rather than its importance. That is the point, which
is a different point from yours.
496. Let us just pursue your account of the
system. I think it is fascinating to hear you put it like this.
So, red lights start flashing. They might flash inside departments
because they are not meeting a target. You might start the light
flashing or the Prime Minister's lights might start flashing because
there are real problems about a target or a problem appears on
the horizon like street crime and something has to be done about
it. It can come from different directions. What can you do, though,
that departments cannot do?
(Professor Barber) That is a good question. It is
a question that I quite often discuss with departments. If you
are running a very large department and you have a mass of things
going on, all of it very important and all of it very demanding,
one of the things we bring is a simplicity because we are tracking
the milestones and we are tracking the data. We also bring to
that a kind of consistency of focus from the centre. Whereas in
the past this may not have been the case, now it is very clear
what the centre and particularly what the Prime Minister is interested
in, and we are going to consistently pursue those. We also bring
lots of evidence and examples and methods from other departments
which might apply to wherever the problems spring up. We can bring
a best practice transfer to the centre of government.
497. My colleagues may want to explore that.
I would have thought a letter from the Prime Minister or a word
from the Prime Minister with a colleague saying "Look, you've
got a real problem with that, go and sort it out" might do
(Professor Barber) That might well do the trick in
some cases, absolutely.
498. Let us just keep with our four levels because
there clearly is a hierarchy of treatment here because you have
(Professor Barber) That is to with the intractability
or otherwise of the problem, not the importance, which was Nick's
499. Let us go to level four which is called
a high intensity drive. This is led by the Prime Minister with
the relevant minister. How many high intensity drives have you
got on at the moment?
(Professor Barber) By their nature you can only have
one or two at any given moment. The first example of that was
the way in which street crime was dealt with. A current example
would be the time and energy the Prime Minister is working with
David Blunkett on the asylum question.