In January, the newly minted government of Justin Trudeau held its first cabinet retreat. Cabinet retreats are usually held twice a year, and they are theoretically designed to allow ministers to engage in a broader discussion of issues and strategy beyond any one particular file. At its inaugural retreat, the cabinet heard from Sir Michael Barber, the British architect of “deliverology” and aide to former prime minister Tony Blair.

Deliverology is simply the science (or art, depending on your perspective) of delivering on goals and promises, particularly those made by governments.  It relies on a clear identification of priorities; the setting of targets and the collection of data related to those priorities; and the exercise of central oversight through a unit reporting directly and regularly to the leader. Shortly before the retreat, Prime Minister Trudeau appointed well-respected public policy expert Matthew Mendelsohn as the head of a new “results and delivery” unit within the Privy Council Office, mirroring the structure of the Prime Ministerial Delivery Unit (PMDU) that Barber headed under Blair.

It’s hard to argue with deliverology as a concept, though there are those who take issue with Barber’s claims of success with respect to better outcomes in the UK educational system. As a matter of sound management, all governments should be setting goals, establishing implementation plans and tracking progress against those goals. For a newly elected or re-elected government, identifying goals is easy: they are the promises made in a campaign platform based on which a party is elected to govern. The Liberals received a strong mandate from Canadians to implement the more than 200 promises in their election platform, which were categorized under the party’s broader goals (for example, a “renewed relationship with Indigenous people”).

There are a few problems with deliverology, however, as applied to the federal system in Canada.

First, the reality is that the federal bureaucracy already operates under a deliverology-like structure. The Privy Council Office (PCO) creates and maintains a list of campaign promises and other commitments made by a government. It works with line departments to develop plans to meet those promises and tracks the progress of work on meeting commitments. It also provides an important challenge function, engaging with departments to refine proposals and ensure all angles of an issue have been considered. Like Blair’s PMDU, the PCO recruits the best and brightest from the public service; those individuals often return to departments after a “tour of duty” at the centre, bringing valuable lessons and experience with them. As a central agency, the PCO does not actually do the work itself – officials in line departments do the heavy lifting – but it does provide active oversight and reports regularly to the prime minister on project status.

Notwithstanding the accepted narrative, the PCO does not operate in a “top-down” or command-and-control fashion. Its primary function is not to provide detailed direction or enforcement, but to convene, question, challenge, monitor, assist and report. (However, note that this mode of operation is also far from the decentralized cabinet government model that Trudeau advocated before his election: that model is fundamentally incompatible with Barber’s deliverology. Barber’s model increased the power and size of Blair’s PMO, as priorities were tracked and managed centrally; before 1970, cabinet government devolved all decision-making power to ministers and their departments, with virtually no oversight from the centre.)

And if the measurement of success is “getting things done,” the current structure is a successful one. Whether or not you agreed with Stephen Harper’s agenda, he said what he was going to do and then he did it, in no small part due to the efforts of the federal bureaucracy. From the five key priorities Harper identified in 2006 — including cutting the GST, passing the Federal Accountability Act, setting mandatory minimum sentences for gun crime, providing cash payments to parents, working with the provinces to reduce health care wait times and the 100-plus other commitments that were outlined in his 2011 election platform — more than 95 percent of them were eventually completed. Harper established a clear record of delivering on the promises he made.

As Matthew Mendelsohn has doubtless discovered, the “results and delivery” system promoted by Barber is already deeply ingrained in the federal structure. The perceived obstructionism, incompetence and apathy in the civil service that Blair’s PMDU was created to address simply does not exist in the Canadian context. This is not to say, of course, that meeting identified goals is easy or trouble-free. The path to delivery is inevitably marked by disagreements, major and minor, and many missed deadlines. But in the end, robust options are placed before cabinet ministers for debate, decisions are made and promises are implemented. It would be a shame for a new government to waste time and energy trying to duplicate a process that already works well, no matter how cumbersome and inelegant it may be at times.

Second, Barber’s concept of deliverology does not lend itself easily to the scope of federal responsibility in Canada. Deliverology has been applied, with varying degrees of success, in the context of direct delivery of services by government, particularly in the education sector — in other words, where the delivery system is complex and multifaceted, where government has almost exclusive control over outcomes and where measurements are relatively easily obtained. Barber’s PMDU focused on priorities in the areas of education, health care, policing and administration of justice — all of which are provincial responsibilities in Canada. In Ontario, Barber’s model was adapted by former premier Dalton McGuinty to undertake major reforms to the education and health care systems.

However, our system of federalism means that the national government is rarely in sole control of program outcomes beyond the timely delivery of money, for example, for pension or unemployment benefits. The federal government is largely uninvolved in direct service delivery, with the exception of programs for veterans and Indigenous people. It is difficult to imagine how reforming tax or electoral systems, or investing in infrastructure, or legalizing marijuana, or increasing support for innovation and cultural industries, or many of the other campaign promises made by the Liberals, would lend themselves to a deliverology approach, given that these issues either include no “delivery” aspect, or their delivery does not rest in federal hands. Some of the Liberal government’s commitments involve more spending in areas where the previous government was already investing funds, while others require establishing legal or policy frameworks for activity that does not require federal government involvement.

It is conceivable that deliverology might be well-suited to reform of Indigenous education, with targets set in collaboration with First Nations communities around teacher effectiveness, hours of instruction or graduation rates; however, the Liberal government has chosen instead, for political reasons and in direct contradiction of Barber’s approach, to spend additional monies on existing programs that have demonstrably poor outcomes.

Partly in recognition of this federal-provincial division of responsibilities, Harper simply increased the amount of money transferred to the provinces and largely left them to work out how to spend it most effectively in their respective jurisdictions. Given provincial jurisdiction over service delivery, if the Liberal government truly wants to implement deliverology in Canada, it would be better off seeking provincial buy-in for particular priorities (home care, for example) at the first minister level, perhaps even establishing a PMDU-like unit that includes federal and provincial members to jointly implement those priorities (the various federal-provincial-territorial working groups have already established a basis for that kind of co-operation). It is not difficult to imagine the progress that could be made on a small list of nationally agreed-upon priorities, and with both levels of government working together to meet them.

To the government’s credit, it has committed to regular meetings with the provinces, and it has so far taken a collaborative approach with respect to the implementation of its climate change commitments. Although carbon pricing is far from the easiest starting point, with care it might provide a template for joint delivery efforts moving forward. If the substance of Barber’s deliverology is to be successfully realized at the federal level, it will require a close and continued cooperation with provinces that has so far been unachievable, given competing priorities and political cycles across the country and the jealous guarding of constitutional territory.

Finally, if deliverology prompts a focus on process and target-setting alone, it will distract from a more important examination of the policy capacity within the federal bureaucracy. In part because of its size and structural rigidity, the public service lacks the ability to engage in the kind of nimble, adaptive policy-making that is necessary in the context of a rapidly evolving society. To address this problem, the PCO set up the Innovation Hub to explore and test new approaches to policy development and service delivery. If the Hub is able to engage productively with departments and actors outside government, it could be a new and useful source of advice for elected officials.

So far, the Trudeau government has repeatedly chosen to turn to experts and advisers outside government, for example, its 14-member Advisory Council on Economic Growth, which provides guidance in particular policy areas. While seeking outside counsel can be valuable, the government must also be able to turn to civil servants for help in identifying and addressing the many challenges: shifting demographics, human capital and labour-market needs, social-program sustainability, regulating new business models, deciding how best to support innovation and economic diversification, and creating economic growth in the absence of new external demand, to name a few. It would be unfortunate if a system-wide emphasis on deliverology distracted from the necessary improvements to the bureaucracy’s ability to provide strategic advice on the “big” questions of the day.

In sum, the federal public service is already well positioned and equipped to help the new Liberal government deliver on the promises it has made. The government should take full advantage of that capacity; it has an ambitious agenda, and four years will pass all too quickly. If the government’s current focus on Barber’s deliverology produces a new or better model of federal-provincial-territorial cooperation in delivering services, then all Canadians will be better off for it. If, on the other hand, it serves only to distract officials from undertaking the more important work of rejuvenating internal policy capacity — identifying future challenges and figuring out how to tackle them — then the public service will ultimately be weaker because of it.

This article is part of the Policy-Making in the Trudeau Government special feature.


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Rachel Curran is a lawyer by training, and she has nearly 15 years of experience in public affairs, including extensive experience providing strategic and policy advice to the Prime Minister of Canada and federal and provincial cabinet ministers. As director of policy to former prime minister Stephen Harper, she oversaw all major governmental initiatives including the preparation of the annual $280-billion federal budget.

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