Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 486-499)




  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 units—whether it is PCTs or schools or local authorities through local PSA arrangements—have 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 are—and will remain—essential 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 a word?
  (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 do—as will become evident over the next hour and a half—collaborate 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 newspaper, yes.

  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 arising—which is inevitable in the real world—as 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. Periodically—roughly every six months—we 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 the Treasury.

  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 that?
  (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 are doing?
  (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 business—particularly in the business of government—there 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 one—this is really internal language to help us describe what the problems are like—it 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 department—but not always—and 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 be—as the Prime Minister reacted on street crime about this time last year—where 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 the trick.
  (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 described it.
  (Professor Barber) That is to with the intractability or otherwise of the problem, not the importance, which was Nick's point.

  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.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 28 March 2003