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.
For richer developing countries, lending is driven by demand, and because loans to those nations generate the profits that the bank relies on, local officials have a large say in how the money is used.
Indeed Kim’s own past speaks to a tension inherent in any bank effort to too closely control a country’s priorities. Fresh out of graduate school, he participated in protests in the 1990s over what was perceived as the bank’s hard line in dictating economic policy. As its president, does he now intend to tell nations how they should run their schools or hospitals, or — more to the point — stipulate that the bank will fund only those programs it thinks will do the most to alleviate poverty?
One criticism of Barber’s “Deliverology” is its top-down nature — with an emphasis on centralized measuring and monitoring to sort out what works, and to press local managers to adapt and improve. According to Barber’s method, a sort of brutal honesty is part of the process, as is a willingness to confront vested interests.
It’s a concept not all bank staff feel fits an organization that doesn’t directly implement — but merely advises on policy and projects that governments undertake. Barber’s method, which relies on constant monitoring and feedback, has “pretty strong prerequisites that are rarely satisfied in Bank client countries,” Adam Wagstaff, a bank research manager, wrote on a bank development blog.
Kim has spent much of his first year studying potential changes at the World Bank. In a variation of a tactic Blair used when he made Barber head of a new “delivery unit,” Kim also has tried to tame the bureaucracy by first creating more of it. He’s set up the Office of Change Management, created a new vice president’s post to run it and appointed 30-year bank veteran Pamela Cox to the job. She is now coordinating the work of perhaps a dozen task forces looking at everything from financial innovations that might make bank lending more flexible, to procurement systems and ways to build performance standards into bank staff reviews.
Bank board members and outside analysts familiar with the organization regard the undertaking as something of a gamble. With 188 member nations and an activist board of political appointees, change can be painfully slow. The bank has been trying since 2005 to let countries with adequate social or environmental regulations skip some of the paperwork involved in bank lending and rely on their local laws. Only a handful of cases have been authorized.
Early last year, the bank agreed to experiment with loans that would be paid out only after programs were complete and the results verified. The idea was to give nations more leeway to administer their own projects, on the assumption that after-the-fact financing would be an incentive to get it right. But the “Program for Results” was a difficult sell in the bank’s governing board, where the United States balked at losing oversight of the bank’s money. In the end it was approved only as a pilot program, to be reviewed in two years.
The success of Kim’s “change” exercise won’t become clear until much later — as new lending patterns emerge, or if he institutes as promised a new budgeting procedure that relies less on what was spent the year before and more on what the bank thinks it needs to do.
There’s little doubt, however, of the potential friction between what Barber did in Britain a decade ago and how the bank has to operate in a complex and politicized world.
Barber cites one telling example about his drive to cut down wait times for basic operations in Britain’s national health system.
Orthopedic surgeons “had people over a barrel. If they wanted to play golf,” they did so, confident in their exclusive operating privileges, Barber said. In response, he said, “we got a South African private provider who would in volume do knees and hips. . . . That changed everything. We provided competition and other private surgeons suddenly decided maybe they should work on Friday.”
The same hard-nosed discussions are underway in the Punjab, he said, where the education team he works with has forced local authorities to use merit hiring for several dozen top management jobs.
Can the bank be that specific or demanding?
Part of the trick, Barber said, is in how the conversation is framed. A prime minister chosen to govern a nation may have to be delicate but has an inherent authority to act. Countries don’t have to do what the World Bank says or even let its staff in the door. Increasingly, if the bank does not want to fund a particular project or underwrite a certain policy, other entities around the world — whether a private hedge fund or China’s development bank — will step in. The World Bank, in other words, has its own competitive concerns — and in some countries a legacy of rocky relations to overcome.
In education, for example, the bank can’t dictate how schools are run or funded. But “I would go to them and say your job as a government . . . is to make sure every child gets a good education,” Barber said. “Now you have a new question. And you get them to do a plan. You get the concept of what you are trying to do and then go back to the solution” and explain how it can be best delivered.
Kim says he understands the pitfalls. After a public appearance at the bank with Barber and his old boss Blair, Kim acknowledged that some of their suggestions were just too blunt. Blair, for example, said that to battle poverty the World Bank should concentrate its resources on a few countries at a time so its money and clout are not spread too thin.
“We can’t do that,” Kim said, in deference to the fact that the bank, to keep its membership happy, must sprinkle its available money around the world.
But he is sold on “delivery science,” even though its application sounds like more of an art.
In development and poverty alleviation “we have a lot of evidence now. We actually know what works,” Kim said, citing the success that such countries as Mexico and Brazil have had in tying cash support to poor families with development goals like keeping kids in school. Efforts are underway to replicate those programs elsewhere. “The real rocket science in all of this is — ‘this has really worked here . . . now we have to make it work over there.’ ”