Government departments should make better use of performance data to try and combat public scepticism about politics, the former head of Tony Blair's Delivery Unit has said.
Michael Barber led the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit – a Downing Street body designed to track the progress of key public sector reforms – from 2001 to 2005, and is now the co-chair of the new Centre for Public Impact (CPI) think tank.
Speaking alongside former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley at an event organised jointly by the CPI, the Institute for Government and the Cabinet Office, Barber called for a "change in the political dialogue" and a greater use of data to demonstrate the real-life impact of policies.
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"One of the problems that we are facing across the Western world is quite a lot of cynicism about government in general and politics in particular," he said. "You see it in all the European economies, and here. Unless government can become more effective and get better at communicating continuously about performance I think that will continue."
The coalition chose to scrap the PM’s Delivery Unit in 2010, in a move meant to signal a break from a centralised, target-driven approach to public services preferred by New Labour. But Barber insisted that the delivery agenda he had championed had lessons for governments of all stripes.
"In some parts of the British media people say, 'We did delivery, now we're going to try and do something else'.... This may be partly my fault, I'm not sure. But certainly over the last 15 years here in the UK people have seen the delivery agenda as a centralising thing. Actually, it's a dialogue thing. It's an evidence-based thing. It's a problem-solving thing. And so the language with which we describe the delivery approach is as important as the techniques that we apply."
He added: "The shift from government by manual inputs to government by stock-takes and outputs is absolutely fundamental. The focus on results, the ability to set priorities, and to be driven by what works, ought to be a really fundamental part of government."
Meanwhile O'Malley – who, as mayor of Baltimore in the early 2000s, pioneered the use of data in measuring public service outcomes and targeting resources under the 'CitiStat' model – told the audience that he believed the delivery approach offered a "new way" of running government.
"It’s not about excuses," said the US politician, who has also been widely tipped as a potential Democratic presidential candidate. "It’s not about moving left to right. It’s about moving forward. It’s about measuring performance and getting things done."
The former governor said a fear of failure could sometimes lead to caution about publishing data or setting fixed performance targets, but urged politicians to be more patient with officials who tried new ways of delivering and measuring public services.
"You've got to refrain from firing people for failing," O'Malley said. "I'm not talking about the sort of failure that's reckless, mismanaged, a dereliction of duty. But if you tried, and you had a good reason to try, something different and you didn't get the results, you can't say that that's a failure. People now know that that way doesn't work, so what's another way?"