Deliverology little more than top down command and control damaging Education, according to Professor Seddon

Whats the case?


Professor Michael Barber seems to be everywhere and much in demand. The Daily Mail tells us that he is currently charging the DFID (who manage our aid to developing countries) £4,400 a day for consultancy advice.  (The  Department  has not had to   suffer  the 20% cuts inflicted on most other Departments , meaning DFID is  relatively flush).   Recently the head of McKinsey’s Global Education Practice, where he impressed, he  is  providing education advice to Pearson Education (amongst others it transpires).

Previously Barber had made his mark in the public sector. He is a former teacher, academic (Institute of Education),Civil servant, Trade union official, and local authority man (Hackney). Back in 1997, when David Blunkett became education secretary, Barber was appointed head of the School Standards Unit, and the two of them drove forward, with considerable determination the Literacy Strategy, targeted initially at Primary schools. This was regarded at the time as a success, certainly in the initial  phase.  He went on to head the Prime Ministers (Blair) Delivery Unit in 2001 with overall responsibility for driving through public sector reforms.

He is highly regarded in both the public and private sectors. Indeed, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary asked him to be Permanent Secretary at DFE only last year, an offer he obviously declined.  He also advised Joel Klein who reformed New York schools.

Barber invented the term deliverology and gave an account of how he approached public service reforms in his book ‘Instruction to Deliver’ (2007).  His theories were central to informing Blairs public sector reforms. His power point presentations and performance  graphs were legendary, setting targets and evaluating departments  performance against  set  targets and milestones. Professor Barbers definition of deliverology is ‘ a systematic process  through which system leaders can drive progress and  deliver results’. In short, command and control. It was a top down, interventionist approach.  Governments, said Barber, face a productivity challenge; people want better services but don’t want to pay higher taxes. To meet the challenge, he went on, three management models have emerged: command and control, quasi-markets, and devolution and transparency.

Command and control, he suggested, ‘is often essential for a service which needs to improve from awful to adequate’. Its not effective, though,  for the next phase-adequate to good- where a more devolved approach is required.  In support of his argument, Barber cited literacy and numeracy in schools and waiting times for healthcare. The aim was to recognise that public services, while different from businesses in being universal and equitable, remained essentially similar in management terms. Barber said that that public service professionals need to have the mindset and capability, not just to lead radical change but to manage transformed services.

Blair set up the PMDU to drive through public-sector reform in the face of perceived civil service obstruction and inertia. It was based in his office, reporting directly to him. He gave its leadership to Barber It wasn’t easy.  By 2001/02 – ‘ the system’, in Barbers words , ‘which had worked so well between 1997-2000 had lost its edge at every level’ . Barber tells us that by October 2001 – so two years in – the position was poor. It was decided that a harder push was needed; individuals were to be held more accountable.  But by the end of 2002, at the time of the third round of delivery reports, progress was no better than mixed. 2003, was not much different.  Even one of the perceived successes,   the Literacy strategy, was under attack. Durham University’s Peter Tymms challenged the statistical basis behind the perceived success of the literacy strategy. Tymms concluded that the statistical procedures behind the startling results on which Barber had built his reputation for delivery were faulty. When the statistical error was corrected the results flattened out .He attributed most   improvements to the teachers ‘teaching to the test’

The Barber  top down approach was basically -tell mangers whats required, give them clear targets,  ensure accountability  and the delivery chain works and there are no weak links , then measure   monitor and evaluate, checking against clear milestones. And be prepared to intervene when things are going wrong (which, of course, they do, frequently)

The problem was twofold. First, the reform strategy to begin with, and indeed for some time, showed no measurable results, and politicians operate  remember ,with a four year horizon. When positive results began to show, they were hardly stellar .And, even when measurable results were available, later on, it transpired that given that billions had been invested in public sector reforms ,the return on investment was seen as, at best, marginal. Indeed some argued that some services had actually got worse. Few believe that the billions spent, delivered acceptable returns. Barber himself  says  the reforms  should be judged as a move from “awful” to “adequate” rather than from “good” to “great” And the reason for this modest change is clearly not inadequate expenditure.

This has led one critic, Professor John Seddon, to describe Barbers deliverology theory as ‘Mickey Mouse Command and control’ . Professor John Seddon in a lecture to academics at California State University claimed that the billions on public sector reform were in fact wasted. (CSU didn’t quite get Barber). Public services have not improved and the problem was actually Barbers approach. Deliverology made matters worse,  according to Seddon .In education,   the target setting  culture  has meant that our children   are taught to  the test and are not being properly educated.  Children are now asking their teachers, he said, will I be tested on that? So, anything that doesn’t contribute to test results is being discarded or knocked off the agenda.  Indeed, anything that cant be measured easily is now  regarded as a second order priority. So a broader education and learning experience suffers. Seddon, of course, is not the only critic of teaching to the test and the effects of the target culture on the  childrens learning experience. Many Heads see their main job as ensuring that as many pupils as possible pass  the benchmark tests,  whether it’s the key stage tests or securing good grades at GCSE and A level, securing  good league table positions.  Offering a broad education and nurturing those with real ability is not on their agenda.

A lack of improvement from this top down approach to reform is explained away according to Seddon in two ways. A failure to meet targets could mean that the targets were wrong. Or managers were not putting in enough effort, or failing to understand exactly what was required of them. Seddon defined deliverology as  ‘ a top down method by which you distort a system, undermine achievement of purpose and demoralise people’.
Seddon says that ‘Barber believes that the only way to achieve better services is through more resources.  This thinking around productivity as the challenge is misguided and wrong.  It was W. Edwards Deming that found the better way is to improve quality if you want better productivity.’

Seddon adds that  the problem with target setting is that ‘all targets are arbitrary and worse they become the defacto purpose of the organization.’   In education, the target has been to score high on tests, and so naturally the teachers purpose is to teach to the test.  The real purpose should, he points out,  be  to support learning.

Barber, Seddon claims, ‘believes that creating a bureaucracy for reporting and measurement is the same as real improvement.’  Concluding that Barbers regime ‘fostered compliance rather than experimentation ‘

Seddon expands ‘ In the latter days of Barber’s reign, the deliverology regime shifted the emphasis from top-down command and control to what was called ‘sustainable improvement, driven by the pressure of customers’ ie the second phase in reform. But to some it wasn’t  at all clear that the first phase had delivered-ie getting services from awful to adequate.

For Blair the shift was a new vision of reform, involving higher standards of performance through greater customer responsiveness. The tailoring and personalisation of services, built around customers, not producers. So, in short, a bottom up approach.  To some this meant that the top down approach hadn’t worked, reinforced by the fact that the Delivery Unit was disbanded

Seddon writes ‘ Barber’s de facto method is to create a bureaucracy for measuring and reporting that then deludes people into assuming improvements are real; his strategies for ‘unleashing’ only unleashed diseased and dysfunctional bureaucracies. ‘

The attraction of Barber is that he is a plausible and articulate advocate with broadly based experience.  So he ticks the boxes when it comes to top level experience and understanding how national and local government work. He knows how  to use data and the importance of research and what levers to pull  .But it strikes me that deliverology adds up to little more than sound project management and  it  hardly represents a new departure or  original management thinking . ie Focus, Plan, Have method ,Monitor and evaluate, and  Communicate.

Barber, to my mind, is rightly praised for getting the Literacy Strategy off the ground  with some momentum behind it and ensuring a long overdue, proper focus on the bedrocks of  literacy and numeracy in our primary schools. I have heard him speak and was impressed-he is a man   untroubled by even a scintilla of self-doubt, unlike most with an academic background.  But he surely cannot escape criticism for the failure to convince the public that there had been a revolution in public service delivery under the  Blair government. Indeed, there is no evidence that productivity improved in education over the period 1999-2006. Barber said ,remember that public sector productivity ‘is now the central issue of domestic politics’. According to the ONS ‘Productivity of publicly-funded education is estimated by dividing annual figures for output from education (taking account of quality) by inputs to education (after making an allowance for pay and price increases) (ONS 2007’) On this basis although between 1996 and 1999, productivity of publicly-funded education services increased on average by 2.1 per cent a year; from 1999 onwards, productivity fell on average by 0.7 per cent a year until 2007. In other words it fell throughout the period Barber was in charge of delivery, and at a time moreover when there was unprecedented investment in public services. It is not straightforward measuring productivity in the public sector, of course, although we lay claim to measuring it better than others, but the figures nevertheless raise some legitimate questions about the effectiveness of the reforms.  As for the target setting culture, which is a major legacy of Barber -well there are plenty of critics who say there are as many cons as there are pros to this approach. And we know that target setting can have bizarre and unintended consequences. For instance, teachers and local authorities focus most of their effort and resources on pupils at the C/D grade boundary at GCSE, to the cost of other more able pupils.

How many people believe that a childs learning experience is much better now than it was, say, in the late 1990s? Test results, of course, are better but test results were on an improvement curve even before 1997, as the Reform think tank has pointed out,   and, of course, improving test results tell us next to nothing about pupils learning experiences or whether our children are actually being well educated.

Professor Barber deserves much respect given his record of public service. But we seem to be still left, despite his best efforts, with public services that are  stubbornly  resistant to change, unresponsive to shifts in demand and  whose productivity never seems to measurably improve.  And now we no longer have the levels of investment in public services that Barber enjoyed when he was head of  Blairs delivery.

Barber perhaps demonstrated the limits of central government intervention. We have got to find ways of getting more from less and  the big issue now is how to achieve this. Certainly improving public sector productivity and public value is important , but this has to be accompanied by supply side reforms which  better harness  private sector resources and capital, with taxpayers money now  in  such short supply.

Professor Seddon is visiting professor at Cardiff, Derby and Hull Universities and Managing Director of Vanguard Consulting.

ONS  Public Service Productivity;Summary; Education 2007



  1. Enjoyed this – there needs to be an alternative to top-down command and control – bottom up control leading to commands upwards. And I speak as a vastly-experienced education consultant who has worked for DFID many times (but not at £4,400 a day !!!!)

    Murray Macrae

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