Magazine Article

A Cautionary Tale
E Michael Barber’s “Deliverology” in the UK & the CSU

By Susan Meisenhelder
English, Professor Emeritus
San Bernardino

Last November, CSU Chancel-lor Charles Reed announced to the CSU Trustees that he, the campus Presidents, and other administrators had met the previous month with a new face on the California scene, Michael Barber. Reed was delighted to point out that Barber is a “sir,” having been knighted in his homeland.

Their goal, he said, was to develop a plan that would improve graduation rates and cut achievement gaps between students from under-represented groups and other students in the CSU. A more detailed plan was rolled out at the January CSU Trustees meeting and now administrators are working on it at the campus level throughout the university system.

Since this new plan, dubbed “The CSU Graduation Initiative,” bears the clear stamp of Michael Barber and his approach to “improving” public services in the United Kingdom during Tony Blair’s second term as Prime Minister, understanding the UK experience is an important first step in assessing the CSU plan.

In fact, the UK experience is a cautionary tale for us, showing how deliverology’s approach to “reform” produces very negative consequences
for the quality of public services.

Who is Michael Barber and what is “Deliverology?”

Michael Barber has worked in various levels of education in the United Kingdom but is certainly most well-known for his role as head of the “Delivery Unit,” a small arm of government established under Blair for the sole purpose of improving public services.

Telling his version of the UK history of “deliverology” in his book Instruction to Deliver: Fighting to Transform Britain’s Public Services, Barber spells out the elements he sees as central to it.

Deliverology, he
writes, “is a system-
atic process through
which system
leaders can drive
progress and deliver
results.”
By necessity, the
process of change
is driven from the
very top since public
servants or “produc-
ers” (as he calls them) are motivated
solely by self-interest and are inca-
pable of change.
Deliverology also requires a
sharp focus on a very limited set of
priorities in order to succeed. Top-
level managers drive this change by
developing an even narrower set of
numerical targets, by holding those
under them accountable for progress
towards those targets, and by provid-
ing incentives to shape behaviors that
will help achieve the targets.
Th e whole process is extraordi-
narily data-driven, grounded in tra-
jectories that show the steps towards
the goal, and tracked through numer-
ous meetings and reports.
On the surface, deliverology
seems a very familiar approach to
management and, for many perhaps,
even a commonsense way to make
change in large institutions.
Th e reality of deliverology—what
it actually produced in the UK, how-
ever—is another story.
John Seddon: The Failure
of Deliverology
In his book, Systems Th inking in
the Public Sector: Th e Failure of the
Reform Regime and a Manifesto for
a Better Way, John Seddon, a Brit-
ish occupational psychologist and
management consultant, argues that
“deliverology” actually made pub-
lic services in the UK worse from
a user’s point of view. In fact, even
after three years of deliverology and
improved government numbers,
public satisfaction with services was
not improving.
In a nutshell, he argues, “deliver-
ology” failed to deliver in ways that
really matter, and this was its greatest
weakness. Seddon discusses numer-
ous problems with Barber’s “deliver-
ology,” problems that doom it as an
eff ective management strategy for
improving public services.
One major problem is its top-
down approach to driving change,
what Seddon calls its “Mickey
Mouse command and control.”
Th at basic mindset produces several
counter-productive consequences for
truly improving public services. It
fails to take advantage of the knowl-
edge people who actually deliver
the service have; and it ultimately
destroys the sense of public duty that
most eff ectively inspires those people
BOOKS REVIEWED
Michael Barber. Instruction to
Deliver: Fighting to Transform
Britain’s Public Services. (Methuen
Publishing Ltd, 2008; Originally
published: London:
Politico’s, 2007.)
John Seddon.
Systems Thinking
in the Public Sector:
The Failure of the
Reform Regime
and a Manifesto
for a Better Way.
(Triarchy Press Ltd,
2008.)