The Ability to Ask Questions and Get Answers
On December 9th Lord Michael Barber, one of the world’s leading experts in improving the effectiveness of public administration, delivered the first in a series of lectures as guest professor at the Faculty of Public Administration of the Higher School of Economics. Video and presentation slides added.
Sir Michael is currently a partner at one of the most well respected management consulting firms, McKinsey. Before this he was Chief Adviser to the Secretary of State for Education and worked for five years in Tony Blair's cabinet where he took part in the creation of a system of effective evaluation of reforms that were implemented in the country.
Sir Michael started his first lecture on ‘Effective Delivery of Public Services under Blair' at the HSE with the questions that Tony Blair asked him right after the election. How can we realize political promises? How can we improve the quality of citizens' life? To find the answers, Barber started a thorough examination of books on the history of American and English political and economic reforms and discovered some interesting parallels between politics and business.
What are the general reasons for failure in commercial organizations? The research Barber has read suggested the following explanations: complacency (we think that everything is already all right, and slow down); the inability of management to explain to employees their aims and tasks; a lack of communication between staff members; underestimation of some external factors; a lack of short-term results or the expectation of instant results.
According to Michael Barber, the reasons for failure on a governmental level are very similar to those listed above. in addition, there is also the incompetence of employees, general inertia of the system, cynicism - people stop believing in change, become apathetic and think that ‘changes are like buses: if you miss one, there will always be another'. Apart from that, it is always important for the government to convince a great number of people that their idea is good. And if they have to make compromises, in the end it may mean that the idea in its final guise is not really satisfactory
Sir Michael also listed the measures that can lead to success. Firstly, it is necessary to strictly prioritise areas of work, dealing with a number of problems (5 - 6 key problems). Secondly, it is important to develop not an abstract essay describing the idea, but a precise work plan, where everything is defined step by step: each participant's personal responsibility, expected results, criteria of success, possible problems etc. Thirdly, it is also important to thoroughly organize the ‘delivery chain': the idea should not be distorted at any of the stages of its delivery from the decision making centre to the ‘smallest' executors. And fourthly, it is essential to understand that sometimes it is just impossible to achieve fast results, which means persistence will be needed. ‘I traveled around Russia, and in the train often looked through the window: it seemed to me that I was seeing the same view all the time - said Michael Barber - But each time I understood that in reality we had travelled another couple of miles. This is how government should work'.
‘How do we determine if an initiative could be implemented?' - Barber asked. A table of periodic evaluation of initiatives was specially developed for Blair's cabinet. It included the following points:
1. How difficult in general is the implementation of this idea?
2. How well is the plan elaborated?
3. What is the potential for implementation?
4. What is the current stage of implementation?
5. What is the likelihood of implementation?
‘The whole programme of initiatives on one sheet - it is very convenient' - Michael Barber said. Every project is appointed a colour: green (the most successful delivery) - green-yellow - yellow-red - red (the least successful delivery).
Mr. Barber also gave a couple of examples from his days in Blair's government. For example, how they tried to improve train delays. As they found out later, these were caused by engine drivers' fear of having no time for braking, and hence skidding on the rails covered with autumn leaves, and because of this, they drastically reduced their speed. To remove this obstacle, the problems and methods for their solution were outlined. So, trains are delayed - why? On first examination the reason was unclear. A question comes up: when does the maximum number of delays occur? The answer is: in autumn. So, delays are seasonal. What happens in autumn? Leaves fall. Are there any countries where trains are not late in autumn? Yes, and it is Poland. What do they do there to prevent it? It turns out that they have a special machine which cleans rails and covers them with a special chemical increasing tractionn. Good, they bought such machines. But the trains were still late. Why? Engine drivers still had vivid memories of a recent railway accident that occurred due to a very short stopping distance. In this way, problems are solved, and a real, practical, suitable answer is found. Generally, according to Mr. Barber, the effectiveness of public administration largely lays in the ability to ask questions and get answers. By the way, the lecturer noted, the state leader in Great Britain never shouts and demands somebody's head. They have a totally different approach to the role of executive power. An official from the Cabinet goes on local business trips to help local governments solve their problems, not to apportion blame and extract revenge.
Speaking about Russia, Mr. Barber emphasized that he considers the last two decades as a time of lost opportunities. At first, the unskillful delivery of privatization leaded to an intolerable gap between rich and poor and the emergence of a small circle of extremely rich people. And Putin's decade became an illustration of the Biblical parable about seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. Russia could have used the sharp rise in energy resources prices to make long-term investments in small business, education and other important spheres of economy and life in general, which could have put the country on a new, higher level of development, but none of this was implemented.
The topic of corruption was also discussed during the lecture. Michael Barber thinks that the more open a society is, the lower the corruption. To reduce it, a combination of factors is needed: firstly, a free and active media and parliament are necessary; secondly, an in-governmental system of control is needed; and lastly, officials should get salaries equivalent to the market rates.
Mr. Barber said that ‘today, the behaviour of Russian government is illogical: a course to exterminate corruption has been declared, but at the same time the society is deliberately made less and less transparent and free'. ‘The Russians are themselves guilty for the ineffectiveness of their government - said Michael Barber connection with this- They are used to expecting less from it. And in the case of failure they simply shrug their shoulders and say "Well, we didn't expect anything different!" But they need to say to themselves "We have to expect and demand more from our government!" I think that students from the Higher School of Economics are exactly the type of people who are able to change the system!' - Sir Michael summarized.
The only thing we have left to say is that Michael Barber's lectures are open to all, and everyone interested is welcome to attend.
The next time Mr. Barber will come to lecture at the HSE will be in May 2010: Look out for announcements on our website!
Audio of Michael Barber’s lecture
Video of Michael Barber’s lecture