PM to set up No.10 unit to strengthen policy delivery

Blair-style team will be headed up by coronavirus vaccination lead Emily Lawson
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

By Jim Dunton

22 Apr 2021

Boris Johnson is creating a new delivery unit in 10 Downing Street to ramp up policy implementation, following the recommendations of a review by Sir Michael Barber.

The team – which has throwbacks to the delivery unit set up by Tony Blair two decades ago – will replace Downing Street’s current implementation unit and be led by NHS chief commercial officer Dr Emily Watson, who is also the health service’s vaccine-deployment lead.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said the new delivery unit would have “greater authority” than the current Downing Street Implementation Unit,  set up under David Cameron.

He said the team would be “small” and include civil servants and people with “key skills” such as auditors and data scientists. Watson is due to take up her new role on secondment from the NHS this summer.

Downing Street said the new delivery unit built on the recommendations the yet-to-be-published review Johnson commissioned from Barber earlier this year. Barber – who was head of Blair’s Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit – was tasked with advising on how projects and programmes across government could be delivered in ways that were more “focused, effective and efficient”.

The spokesman said the delivery unit would not affect policymaking at departmental level, but was aimed at ensuring the government had “the strongest possible approach” to the successful delivery of its agenda.

“It is about making sure that the prime minister’s priorities are being delivered,” he said.

Johnson’s spokesperson denied that the unit's creation is a reflection of the prime minister’s dissatisfaction with the civil service’s delivery capabilities.

On Monday Johnson praised the “amazing job” done by the civil service during the pandemic. But last year, he voiced frustration at the pace of delivery to members of parliament’s Liaison Committee  after applauding officials’ work. 

“I do think – perhaps – that one of the lessons we need to draw from this [pandemic] is maybe there are some times when we need to move faster,” he said.

“Project Speed is of great value, I think, to the workings of our civil service and we certainly won’t be shy of reform where it is necessary.”

Project Speed is the prime minister's initiative to boost infrastructure spending quickly in response to the Covid pandemic, including plans to innovate and promote modern methods of construction across infrastructure and public-sector buildings.

Commission for Smart Government research director Martin Wheatley said strengthening delivery capacity was a wise move on Downing Street’s part.

"The PM is right to learn from history, that he needs strong capacity linked closely to him to keep track of and drive delivery,” he said.

“However excellent delivery also requires clear strategy, and we think the PM needs to do more to build strategic clarity about how high level goals like net zero and levelling up can be turned into a clear set of shifts in policies and programmes which a delivery unit can oversee.”

Last year former chancellor George Osborne told a Commission for Smart Government evidence session he had come to realise that the Blair-era efforts to enhance No10’s delivery powers – such as through the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit – had been constructive.

“In opposition we got into all this ‘we’re going to scrap all of this stuff when we get in’, which we did,” he said. “And then we spent years trying to recreate it but never actually calling it that.”

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