Saturday 22 October 2016

Books: Rules for the pursuit of the political holy grail

Politics: How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don't Go Crazy, Michael Barber, Allen Lane, pbk, 368 pages, €25.50

Paschal Donohoe

Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30

Michael Barber: Advised on public services in more than fifty countries
Michael Barber: Advised on public services in more than fifty countries
How to Run a Government so that Citizens and Taxpayers Don't Go Crazy by Michael Barber

Tip O'Neill, best known for describing all politics as local, argued that: "It is easier to run for office than to run the office". As leader of the American House of Representatives for a decade, he was well qualified to make this claim.

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The actual challenge of making things happen in government is the subject of a growing amount of academic research and analysis. The need for this was acknowledged, with more than a hint of gallows humour, by a Russian prime minister when he said: "We tried to do better but everything turned out the same".

Michael Barber was appointed by Tony Blair to improve the delivery of government and help his ministers. He is the author of Instruction to Deliver, a wonkish manual on the challenge of governing and has advised on public services in more than 50 countries.

This new book describes the view from the "centre of government looking out... and trying desperately to get something done so that the citizen benefits". Examples and case studies from the UK, Pakistan and Canada show how this benefit can be delivered. The challenges are also well demonstrated.

My introduction to both was immediate and sharp. The run-up to a cabinet reshuffle was dominated by speculation on when it would happen and who could be on the way up or way out. When the Taoiseach called me to his office, I met another colleague tensely waiting to see the Tánaiste. Tension gave way to disbelief, and then phone calls to family.

Events soon took over. A few hours later I was notified, while seated in the Dáil, that rail unions had just voted to strike. A colleague mournfully informed me that 'all this was mine'. Serious, and difficult, meetings followed immediately. My first intervention at cabinet was on the dire consequences for commuters, employees and the economy. I quickly learnt that there are no honeymoons in high office.

This book looks to help with these challenges. It acknowledges that broader factors have changed the nature of government. An interdependent world has magnified the consequences of distant events and diluted the ability of governments to manage their consequences. Events in Greece matter to Ireland. Political stability in Africa and the Middle East affect our political horizons. Social media allows any event to go viral.

Barber responds to these challenges through proposing 57 rules. The quality of these rules varies.

Rules such as 'Government should take its stewardship responsibility seriously' or that 'A full-scale review of the programme at least once a year provides deep learning' have more than a hint of the obvious about them. Michael Noonan or Brendan Howlin might well throw this volume out the window if greeted with the rule of 'Finance Ministers are under huge pressure'.

However, the cumulative effect of this book is serious and instructive. It points to a central paradox of governing. Real change requires making big things happen, but this takes time. However, electoral cycles look for results in the short term. Additionally, political and corporate life is attracted to the announcement of bold strategies and plans but a relative lack of interest in the grind of their delivery.

Barber argues that 'much of government goes straight to policy, forgetting strategy. And then... underestimates implementation... but policy without strategy is rarely transformative, and policy without implementation is worthless'.

Making decisions well and then making sure their consequences are as intended is the purpose of this book. The holy grail is positive and irreversible change that makes a difference to the lives of citizens and withstands the clamour of powerful interests. While the lists do occasionally overwhelm, this book is packed with advice about how to turn the art of government into more of a science.


Paschal Donohoe is a TD for Dublin Central and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport

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