The advice Sir Michael Barber offers about public management is not warm and fuzzy.
If a narrow monopoly interferes with service delivery, break it. If cronyism supplants merit hiring, bust it up. If a school or hospital or train line runs behind, offer the support needed to improve — then track the performance relentlessly and ride whoever is responsible until it does.
It’s a philosophy he formed into a soft science as part of then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government a decade ago. Today it is filtering around the globe as Barber advises World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, retools the schools in the Punjab and consults with public education reformers in the United States.
He has caught Kim’s ear in particular and has been counseling the new World Bank president trying to focus an organization that internal documents describe as “overstretched.”
Barber’s philosophy lays out a tough road — one that would force the bank to change the way it sets internal budgets and be stricter in ensuring projects that countries want funded align with its overarching goals. Kim has made the top priority clear: eliminating extreme poverty by 2030. Reshaping how the bank operates to further that end may require a deep change in culture — and Barber’s ideas about service delivery are driving the process.
Kim keeps Barber’s book handy for reference, has called him for advice and has invited him to meet with senior staff. Kim has developed his own vocabulary for the process — saying he wants the bank to develop a “science of delivery” to manage projects or advise countries, a play on the title of Barber’s book “Deliverology 101.”
“It is a very simple process, but if you go through things rigorously you will make progress. What are the priorities for the World Bank Group as a whole? Kim has been clear: ending poverty and achieving shared prosperity,” Barber, currently the education strategist for Britain’s Pearson company, said in an interview in Washington last month. “What does that mean in a particular country? . . . At the moment there is insufficient connection between the World Bank headquarters and aspirations and what happens country by country. That is the delivery chain. How do you need to change the delivery chain — the line of sight between the front line and here [Washington]? Kim is aware of that as a major issue.”
It may sound almost laughably obvious. Isn’t that what the World Bank does? It was formed after World War II to rebuild Europe, a task that focused it on infrastructure construction and finance. But in the decades since, its mission has been about development — with a branch that lends on a for-profit basis to the better-situated developing countries, a branch that provides cheap finance and grants to the poorest, and arms that provide investment finance and risk insurance to encourage private projects. So a focus on poverty is nothing new.
But it is also an organization that operates by inertia, better at adding programs, projects and operating units than closing them out. The budgets of its different agencies and units are increased year to year by the same percentage, rather than shifted as priorities or program results dictate. The money available for the poorest nations is set by a formula that in some ways shortchanges the neediest — a weaker government, for example, arguably needs more assistance but qualifies for less.