Features: October 4th, 2002

Ten Steps To Policy Heaven

By Michael Barber, The Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser on Delivery

Reproduced by permission of the Centre for Management and Policy Studies.

  1. Create a sense of urgency
  2. Urgency needs to be instilled in everything we do as we reform our public services. If you run a large business and you constantly face global competition, possible death of your organization stares you in the face every morning. The public service goals that we’re pursuing are just as important, and the pressure just as great, but our work is not always seen as having the same urgency.

    There are lots of ways to create a sense or urgency. Point to the evidence showing variations in performance, or international comparisons that show we might be doing better in some areas than we are. Highlighting the ever-changing pace in society, technology and of globalization, all of which demand ever-more rapid change in response from public services.

    Try and make your message personal – delay means another day when another child didn’t reach the standard in reading, another patient not cured who might have been cured or another crime that’s been committed that might have been prevented.

  3. Be ambitious
  4. Set yourself ambitious goals and be clear about your direction. Imagine what success would look like when you embark on a policy, and be radical and imaginative – more policies fail from fuge than boldness.

    Be passionate about what you are doing, and at the early stages of reform try to take some actions that convey your sense of belief, that indicate the direction of travel. If you don’t believe that the changes you’re embarking on are credible, likely to succeed and likely to make a difference, why should you expect anybody out there in services being reformed to believe you?

  5. Convince people
  6. When people, particularly at the front line, have been through a series of failed reforms they can become skeptical about initiatives and the likelihood of their success. We have to convince people that success really is possible.

    Remember that there are many successful aspects to our public services, many successful reforms and many impressive achievements from every Department in Whitehall – show people the evidence. Tell them stories. Give them examples. However radical and imaginative your reform, you can be absolutely sure that somebody out there in one local area or in another part of the world has already done it, evaluated it and moved on to the next step. Find and celebrate these successful change agents.

    If there are no international examples or equivalents in other fields, then establish some demonstration projects and begin to show people that your approach works. If you want to persuade people of the value of a long-term strategy for significant change, you must generate short-term results.

  7. Plan all four stages
  8. At the beginning you need to imagine each of the stages of implementation.

    I tend to imagine policy as having four stages, the first of which is the policy development phase (which includes imagining subsequent phases and planning the project accordingly). In the second phase you begin to put the policy into practice, and I sometimes think of this as being the phase of relentless implementation. People are naturally suspicious of change, and they don’t necessarily warm to it in its early stages – it needs to be seen through. The third phase I think of as embedding change. You’ve gone through the implementation, it is beginning to work, now it needs to be embedded and deepened. The fourth phase is that of irreversible progress – as your policy begins to show results it will gather pace.

    For this to happen, you must pay close attention to the process. Very often we get through the first phase and sometimes the second phase, but then move on to another agenda during the third phase of embedding change. So just at the point when the policy might have made a really profound impact it loses momentum and gets lost.

    Implementation may take any amount of time depending on the nature of the policy, but the sustaining of the change needs a political will. People need to hold their nerve through periods of opposition and to recognize that transformation takes a long time.

  9. Relate to the big picture
  10. There are plenty of examples of what the Americans call ‘boutique policies’ – that is discrete policies that are good ideas in themselves, but are developed in isolation from the mainstream. For policies to succeed in a meaningful way they must be built into a national strategy for change.

    When policy-makers decide upon policies separately from the overall strategy of reform, however, the result can be a policy that is marginal, or sometimes patronizing.

  11. Invest in training
  12. Not having enough funding for training and development is sometimes used as an excuse for not pushing ahead with fresh policy, and it is unacceptable.

    Introducing major change costs money, but it’s not as expensive as pursuing a policy that won’t work. The National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy cost around ? million a year, but it changed the way we use around ?illion pounds we pay to our teachers every year – a ratio of around 1:50 in terms of cost.

    Money must be targeted to change behaviours, and people often underestimate the cost of training and development when implementing major change. You might also use money to reward success. If you get these things right, very small amounts of money can bring about significant change.

  13. Make it happen
  14. Legislation, regulation and guidance are all tools available to the policy-makers, but significant change is unlikely to occur without a plan for their implementation. Your plan may involve bottom up change, top down change, or most likely, a combination of the two. Either way, you will need to consider who your change agents are likely to be, and how change will be administered.

    There may be advantages in creating a new administrative machine, and there may be alternative benefits to be found in using existing capacity. A new agency will be dedicated to the project, but may duplicate the work of existing agencies – creating turf wars. Using an existing agency removes this problem, but you run the risk that they will give your work low priority.

  15. Gather feedback
  16. Once you implement your policy you will need to know what is happening as consequence. Central to this is anticipating the likely trajectory of change as you head towards your target. In some cases change occurs steeply, after which it becomes more difficult. Other types of change have a lower trajectory at first. Once you’ve anticipated the trajectory you can then check whether you are in the right place against it, and can interpret figures in an intelligent way rather than imaging change as a straight line – it never is.

    In the short term, it’s important to find out quickly whether implementation is taking place. There is a risk in assuming people are implementing your policy, when actually you can’t be sure – and by the time you get the feedback it is too late to put it right. It is also quite possible that feedback will highlight a design flaw in the policy, in which case you will need to refine it and adjust it before it has major consequences. The faster you can get accurate feedback, the more able you are to prevent serious long-term problems.

  17. Communication
  18. You need to know what people are saying about your policy, and you need to convey your message – you may think you have a coherent policy, but if the people delivering it don’t see it as such then you have a problem. You must be active in listening to them, and explaining your policy clearly and consistently. Make sure others who are representing your policy are giving the same messages.

    Try to imagine what you want people who deliver it to say about it after three, six and nine months – a trajectory for changing attitudes.

    Communication works much better if other people do it for you, so you need to find the people who are best placed to do so. Such people are very often in front line leadership posts in the units of whatever service you are discussing. Investing in leadership is a fundamental issue, particularly as public services are increasingly devolving responsibility to the front line.

  19. Own reform

Finally, it should be your ultimate aim to build the capacity of the system to change itself, thus shifting ownership of reform to the public services themselves. Invest in leadership and professional development in pursuit of reform. There is a generally held view that to achieve change you need to win people’s hearts, but research shows it is the other way round – people change what they do then acknowledge its value. Change behaviours and belief will follow. But of course this only works if your policy is fundamentally sound. You know you have achieved irreversible progress when two things happen – first of all everybody tells you that achieving it was easy, and secondly they say it was their idea.