Of all the Big Ideas bequeathed by the Blair government, the one that has intrigued foreign leaders more than most is his Delivery Unit, headed up by Sir Michael Barber in the early 2000s.
The idea that success is the mundane application of a handful of disciplines (“government by routine, not government by spasm”) may not appeal to a politician’s ego but “it works”, says Sir Michael.
He told a meeting of the Mile End Group: “Politicians think delivery is 90% policy and 10% implementation, but it is the other way round – 10% policy and 90% implementation. This is not a research finding, it is an emotional statement.”
Sir Michael Barber’s roster of appointments in a range of international capitals, from the Canada to Malaysia, are further evidence that good government is more chartered accountant than turf accountant.
Sir Michael, former teacher, former Hackney councillor, former prospective MP, and chief education adviser to Pearson, delivered the delivery unit to the Blair government between 2001 and 2005.
Since that date he has turned the art of delivery into something akin to a science with a range of paradigms, modules, disciplines and buzzwords.
Such PowerPoint fodder may sound more jargon than substance but it has put 2million more children into education in the Punjab (pop 100million) where hundreds of former soldiers buzz around the sprawling region collecting real-time data from far-flung schools to check progress.
At the MEG, part of Queen Mary, University of London, where he is a regular visitor, he tested out the presentation of a few of his theories for his soon-to-be-published latest iteration of his deliverology idea which involves routines, stocktakes, checks, re-appraisals and, above all, tenacity.
But, he took questions on innovation, success and failure and how it related to London’s schools, answers that took on new relevance as Education Secretary Michael Gove’s policy evolution became the political talking point of the week.
Talking of education, he said: “There are many failures on the way to success.” But he added it was key to “distinguishing between that kind of failure and catastrophic failure”.
“Right from 1997 we were keen to improve education in London so we introduced education action zones, and they largely failed.
The London challenge
“In 2000-01 we had Excellence In Cities which worked in some places but not in others and made incremental progress. And then we hit upon the London Challenge which was the best thing that we did.”
The London Challenge, pushed by the Labour Education Secretary Estelle Morris in 2003, was a five-year project with a moral imperative: to give every young person a better education, with additional funding a specific minister to add political steel, focus and accountability.
It concentrated on high quality leadership and teaching within schools with specific programmes of training and development. Meanwhile Sir Michael’s beloved “data” – both real-time and Big – created groups of schools with similar characteristics leaving failing schools with equivalents against which to measure themselves (thus reducing excuses and wiggle room).
With a positive outlook, a team of top advisers and key targets (another of Sir Michael’s essential ingredients) in 2010, Ofsted declared London had a higher proportion of good and outstanding schools than any other area of England.
He told the audience at Mile End: “Bangladeshi students have overtaken the average; Pakistani students have narrowed the gap – this is a globally known example of one of the few capital cities in the world where the capital city outperforms the nation on education. Warsaw is another.
“One of the things that was needed was to create space for the minister to try things out and if the minister has the language and the ability to defend it in public you can get through it.
“In addition there were the Academies. Hackney now exceeds the national average and five academies out of nine secondary schools makes a big difference. I was fighting to get my schools out of Hackney schools but now Hackney is overtaking Camden.”
“But if we didn’t have the two failures we wouldn’t have come up with the design of the London Challenge. We learnt from bitter experience.”
He was speaking before the row over the replacement of Blairite Baroness Morgan as the head Ofsted and the subsequent accusation from Lib Dem David Laws that Gove was making the change for political reasons.
Sir Michael counselled against politicisation of backroom staff.
He said: “I wouldn’t want the civil service to be more political. I wouldn’t anything remotely like the American system, firstly it’s not very British and, also, I don’t think it would work.
“If you’re a frustrated government – and most governments are frustrated – leaping for the idea of only appointing someone who is politically ‘like us’ is not the solution. My instinct is not to go down that route.”
He said the key was to go back to the basics of delivery – targets, measuring, adaptations, tenacity.
However, he did say that he thought that Gove – who outlined his vision for schools in Stratford this week – was one of the few ministers that understood the mechanics of delivery.