Mention “deliverology” to a public servant working on the policy frontlines, and you’ll get either a shrug or a grumble. The trendy management theory that took the federal bureaucracy by storm three years ago has struggled to live up to the initial hype.
Still, the person responsible for the public management approach believes it is changing the way policy is implemented in Canada.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals came to power in 2015 hailing the governing theories of British political adviser Sir Michael Barber. Barber’s principles on how to achieve results on promised actions had been pioneered in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government 15 years earlier, with the establishment of the important “delivery unit” in the prime minister’s office. The approach became known as deliverology; its goal was to get ministers and public servants to keep a laser-like focus on the government’s priorities and deliver what was promised to voters.
Trudeau invited Barber to three cabinet retreats. He also visited Ottawa, where copies of his presentation to cabinet circulated around departments and were devoured by bureaucrats wanting to see what deliverology was all about. They bought Barber’s book, How to Run a Government: So that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy, and signed up for courses on the essentials that popped up around town.
In Canada, the Results and Delivery Unit was created, to be housed in Canada’s Privy Council Office (PCO). Matthew Mendelsohn, a former Ontario deputy minister and think tank founder, became the new deputy minister who would head the office. Departments appointed “delivery officers,” and a cabinet committee was created — headed by Trudeau himself — to monitor the results.
The buzz fades
Fast forward to 2019, and the buzz has faded out to a murmur. In conversations with senior bureaucrats, management consultants, politicians, and other public administration watchers – none of whom would go on the record criticizing the government’s efforts – the word is they barely hear about deliverology anymore.
“It was such a big deal at the beginning, but it drifted. It’s just not top-of-mind now; no one talks about it anymore. They laugh about it,” said one long-time senior bureaucrat.
“There was all this anxiety and disruption over what it meant. Departments were busy setting up delivery officers and delivery units,” said public management consultant Mark Schacter.
“New performance measures had to be developed and approved. Everyone was trying to figure out what it meant. Then the wave of activity passed and things seemed to be back to business as usual.”
Another senior bureaucrat shrugged. “Is deliverology still a thing? I know the office is still there, but no one talks about it.”
The new approach imposed another layer of administration on some public servants. Their departments had been abiding by evaluation and performance policies for more than 40 years. They were already obliged to report findings to the Treasury Board Secretariat. With deliverology, the public service still did all that work, and now they also had to report the progress on all the government’s goals to a “delivery unit,” which, along with ministers and the prime minister, monitored and tracked these priorities.
Other public servants grumbled that all the resources and attention had gone to bureaucrats working on priorities, at the expense of other day-to-day operations.
Deliverology’s chief steward in Ottawa
Was the approach a total failure?
In a recent interview, Mendelsohn insisted the version adapted in this country works, and much of the criticism is misguided because Canada “never intended to do deliverology from A to Z as articulated in Barber’s book.”
He said the federal government borrowed four core principles from the UK model: to focus on policy implementation, establish routines around all aspects of the delivery process, identify obstacles to progress and remove them, and report publicly on progress in reaching the promised results.
When measured against those standards, Mendelsohn said, the system is working. He argued that the big “unappreciated” shift has been a culture change in the public service. Public servants are now trained to think about results and how to measure them at the front end of policy development, before proposals are ever brought to cabinet.
He said that shift is now baked into all reporting ─ including memoranda ─ to cabinet. The expected outcomes of a new policy or program, how they will be measured and tracked, must be incorporated.
“What we have done is we have brought greater focus on implementation into the initial policy-making choices, so cabinet and ministers are thinking about implementation, project management and delivery at the very beginning,” he said.
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The idea behind deliverology was to bring a discipline into management and bridge a longstanding gap between policy-making and implementation, said Independent Senator Tony Dean, a former cabinet secretary in Ontario who helped create a delivery unit for Dalton McGuinty’s government.
For years, governments made big policy and project announcements, turned them over to the public service for implementation, and failed to deliver what was promised. Months could go by between an announcement and implementation, and ministers were not involved unless something went wrong.
The failure of the Phoenix pay system represented a cautionary tale for ministers of what happens when the senior echelons aren’t closely involved in the implementation of their policies and projects.
The ministerial mandate letters
Mendelsohn emphasizes the importance of the mandate letters Trudeau sent to all his ministers when they were appointed to cabinet. These letters laid out each minister’s marching orders and what they were expected to deliver over the government’s four-year mandate.
Up until then, mandate letters had been secret. Trudeau made them public, and he also introduced an online tracker to monitor the ministers’ progress in achieving the commitments outlined in the letters.
The argument was that when the letters are public, Canadians know exactly what the government is doing and which ministers are responsible for the policy — whether it was health care agreements, the Child Tax Benefit, or infrastructure. Mendelsohn said the letters also created a daily pressure on departments to implement those commitments, because they were on the hook for reporting to ministers and the prime minister on the “progress being made and if not, why.”
Mendelsohn said the public release of the mandate letters, along with the online tracker, are crucial for transparency; they are driving accountability, culture change and “helping to get things done.”
One high-ranking bureaucrat acknowledged the letters became key to managing the government’s agenda in the face of a constantly changing political landscape. Without them, he said, the government would have lost traction on advancing its priorities in the second and third years of its mandate, given the unexpected threats such as the NAFTA 2.0 negotiations.
Many of the people interviewed argued that the mandate tracker backfired and distorted the principles underpinning deliverology.
Instead of focusing on a few top priorities, the government made all its election promises and the commitments in ministers’ mandate letters priorities, so that ─ as one official put it ─ “when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.”
The original 2015 mandate letters gave ministers 289 tasks, but that to-do list has since swelled to 432, with new promises around the opioid crisis, irregular border crossings and other emerging issues. The mandate tracker suggests the government met 47 percent of its original promises, which would be 37 percent if the initiatives introduced in Budget 2019 are included.
“They never got it [deliverology] right, right off the bat,” said a former senior PCO official. “To my mind, it was an enormous failure in spirit not to identify just four or five priorities. The way it was handled, everything was a priority, and deliverology was another word for results-based management, which has been talked about since Moses was in short pants.”
Tony Dean said making the mandate letters public is a significant breakthrough, but the government should have picked a “handful of key priorities, elevated them, and shown tangible progress,” which they could be touting as they head into the fall election.
“It’s a method we know works,” said Dean. “If such goals had been set three years ago, the government would be readying to talk about progress made…”
The main question is whether Canadians are better off because of deliverology. Mark Schacter, who is the author of Does “Deliverology” Matter?, said there is no conclusive evidence it makes any “difference to the quality of public management” or to peoples’ lives.
Said Schacter, “A single-minded focus on targets sets public servants focused on targets, but being focused on targets is not necessarily the same as being focused on what’s good for Canadians.”
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