Rush of new delivery units enjoying mixed success, says think tank

By on 27/04/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Tony Blair and Sir Michael Barber - a former head of the UK’s delivery unit - speaking at The Strand Group, King’s College London

Governments around the world are increasingly emulating the ‘delivery unit’ model pioneered in the UK, but with mixed success, research suggests.

A report published today by the London-based Institute for Government (IfG) reveals that delivery units now play a key role in supporting central government activities in 25 countries, with many more operating at regional and local levels.

But the IfG found that a growing number of delivery units are being axed because they have not lived up to expectations. Eight have closed since 2014, with a number of others “limping on” without a sense of momentum or the political backing they once enjoyed, the IfG said.

Delivery units are small teams of officials that help central political leaders oversee and hasten delivery on key policy priorities, including by tracking progress on particular issues and intervening directly with delivery departments.

The concept was first given life through the ‘Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit’ set up in 2001 under the government of former British prime minister Tony Blair, and has since become an international phenomenon with a dozen established in the past two years alone. The former PM’s own Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative has for some years assisted African governments to set up their own units, publishing its own reports on the approach last year.

Recent examples include a delivery unit set up by Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau to catalyse progress on a set of cross-government policy goals, and another launched by Sierra Leone’s president to revive the economy after the Ebola epidemic.

In many cases, delivery units have had significant impacts on public policy priorities. In Malaysia, for example, street crime fell by 33% in one year after being brought under the purview of a dedicated unit.

But with some units either failing to deliver on expectations or being closed down altogether, the IfG argues that there are lessons to be learned on the most effective approaches to establishing units and ensuring they retain their relevance.

Dr Jen Gold, author of the report, said: “Delivery units are now a remarkably popular government innovation with genuinely global appeal. But it is important to realise that there is a growing list of countries where they haven’t lived up to political leaders’ expectations. By looking at where some have gone wrong, this report offers specific advice for governments who want to see their units succeed.”

Based on interviews with officials and other parties who have worked with delivery units, the report identifies a number of ingredients for a successful delivery unit. These include strong political backing, a tightly defined remit, the right hiring strategy, and an effective routine for reviewing – and if necessary refreshing – operations.

The think tank warns governments not to be hasty in abolishing ineffectual delivery units, highlighting instances where ministers have scrapped units only to regret their loss of cross-government delivery levers.

In the UK, the PMDU was eventually scrapped in 2010 by then prime minister David Cameron, only to be reinstated under a different name and with a refocused remit after ministers recognised what they had lost.

“Governments can pay a heavy price for weak or ineffective units, and not just in terms of wasted resources,” the report said. “When units lose influence, for example, their continued existence can cultivate a false sense of security that government projects and programmes are being properly monitored. But simply abolishing them in these instances isn’t necessarily the answer either.”

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See also:

How to get things done in government: the art of delivery

Scott Brison expands on Canada’s plan to adopt ‘results and delivery approach’

Government of Canada pledges creation of new central ‘results and delivery unit’


About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

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