Asking Questions Like the British Do

Jitinder Kohli offers lessons learned from the British government’s experience getting agencies to focus on effective strategies to accomplish their goals.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair created the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, which had a significant culture change across the senior ranks of the British government.  (AP/Matt Dunham)
British Prime Minister Tony Blair created the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, which had a significant culture change across the senior ranks of the British government.  (AP/Matt Dunham)

The Obama administration announced 120 high-level goals for government departments and agencies as part of the president’s fiscal year 2011 budget this year. This is a welcome step—defining what government is trying to achieve is essential if public money is to be used wisely. But setting goals can only ever be the first step. What matters most is whether departments and agencies actually accomplish the goals. That requires a culture change across government, with a much stronger emphasis on delivering outcomes for society.

Achieving culture change in government is never easy, but the administration can learn some important lessons from the United Kingdom. British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared immediately after winning the general election in 2001 that a key priority for the second term was to “deliver” on the targets, or goals, that the government had set itself. Reducing mortality from heart disease and cancer, increasing school attainment, reducing crime, and decreasing road congestion were all key goals Prime Minister Blair promised the country.

This strong emphasis on “delivery” of goals was new—government’s key focus was not to be the laws it passed or the programs it administered but the outcomes it achieved for society. That required a culture change across government departments. Central to driving this change was a new unit set up by Prime Minister Blair in the days after the election. The Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit led by Professor Michael Barber went about its task by asking those responsible for delivering targets a set of simple but challenging questions about their strategy for achieving the goals—the effect was a significant culture change across the senior ranks of the British government.

The corollary department in the United States is the small but powerful Office of Management and Budget, which has a difficult task over the coming weeks. It has little expertise in how to achieve the goals, but it still has a crucial role to play in holding government agencies accountable. Both OMB director Peter Orszag and the administration’s Chief Performance Officer Jeff Zients must develop a framework that genuinely holds agencies to account without micromanaging the process of delivery. They would do well to learn from the U.K .experience in developing this framework.

I remember being struck by the power of the approach that Barber invented when I was working as an official in the British government back in 2001. By asking three sets of difficult but very simple questions, the Delivery Unit changed the way that we thought about our jobs. The three themes were:

  • What journey are you trying to make in terms of the goal? Where are you now and what’s the destination?
  • What’s your strategy to get there? Why do you think your interventions will work?
  • How will you monitor progress as you proceed? Do you have the capacity to adjust your strategy as you go along?

Where’s A? Where’s B?

The first theme is about charting the journey that you are trying to make—essentially, if you are making a journey from “A to B,” where’s “B”? The Obama administration’s high-level goals answer this question for many departments and agencies. But equally important is clarity about where you are now—where is “A”? It is important that the data about current performance on the goal is both timely and accurate. Knowing the start and end point of the journey is a pretty basic requirement if you are to successfully get to the destination. So having good quality data on crime or cancer rates was as important as knowing exactly what reduction you were trying to achieve.

How do you plan to get to “B”? Will it actually work?

The second theme is about your strategy to accomplish the goal. The Delivery Unit in the United Kingdom asked what you were planning to do to get there. But the key question was why do you think it will work? In many ways, this was the central point of the approach. It forced those responsible for accomplishing goals to move from doing things they thought might pull in the right direction, to a new approach where strategies would only be adopted if they were demonstrably likely to work.

For each intervention, you were asked what contribution it would make to accomplishing the goal—for example, if you were considering traffic calming measures to reduce road deaths, you were asked to estimate how many deaths you thought that will avoid. If there remained a gap to be bridged, you needed to decide what other interventions you would pursue to meet your target. For each of these, you were asked what contribution they would make and when. Doing this allowed you to draw a line that set out how the target would be achieved over time and the contribution that each measure would make—effectively a route, or trajectory, to get from “A to B.”

None of this was easy. In the past, government agencies in the United Kingdom rarely had to estimate the actual effect that each measure would have. And the evidence base to do so was often sketchy. But posing a set of difficult questions in this new approach made public servants think hard about the nature of the problem they were trying to solve and develop creative solutions to address it. The team responsible for reducing vehicle crime, for example, started by developing a sophisticated understanding of what factors that influenced car crime—they realized it was much more complex than they had initially thought. This led to a strategy that included working with vehicle manufacturers to improve vehicle security standards, launching awareness campaigns for motorists to encourage them not to leave valuables visible, and collaborating with the car parking industry to reduce the risk of crime from parking garages, among other measures.

The key was identifying a strategy that was likely to work—and if that meant innovative approaches, that was fine. Public servants in the old model might have focused on measures such as stronger penalties for those who engage in vehicle theft, or increasing the number of police officers focused on vehicle crime. These tactics came naturally to a law enforcement ministry and were guaranteed to get positive media attention. But the new approach changed the central question from being “what will you do?” to “why do you think it will work?” It did not matter whether the strategy would attract media headlines or be politically popular—what mattered was whether there was reason to believe that it might succeed. And the strategy was extremely successful in this particular case—the target was to reduce vehicle crime by 30 percent over six years, and the team actually accomplished 46 percent.

Of course, in some instances, it was hard to identify measures that you could say had a high likelihood of success. But rather than just inventing ideas and hoping, the new approach encouraged you to experiment with the ones that were most promising and see whether they worked before adopting a full-scale rollout.

Adjust your route as you go along

The last set of questions focused on how you intended to measure progress as you went along—and crucially what you would do to react to developments. Things were bound to go off trajectory. Some initiatives would work better than expected and others would prove less effective than you initially hoped. The important thing was to collect timely data on performance so that you could analyze whether the initiatives were working, expand ones that have worked well, introduce new measures where necessary, or close down ones that didn’t work.

The plan had to be lived, and you were held accountable to it in real time. If you estimated that traffic calming would reduce road deaths by 3 percent, but it only declined by 1 percent as a result of the measures, you had to decide what to do about it. Perhaps it was because traffic-calming schemes had been delayed in their implementation—in which case, how did you intend to get them back on track? Or perhaps traffic-calming schemes were proving less successful than hoped for, in which case did they need to be a less prominent part of the strategy?

The new approach also required that there be a lead official for accomplishing each goal and a named official responsible for delivering each measure that formed part of the strategy. This team was to meet regularly and review progress, and in doing so, draw up an assessment of how things were going and where there was a need for more attention. The team was asked to produce a report every six months summarizing the progress they had made on each goal, and the overall likelihood of successfully accomplishing the goal. These reports were then audited and revised by the central unit and presented to the prime minister for review. The prime minister would meet with responsible ministers on the most prominent targets to discuss progress and satisfy himself that enough was being done to address any shortcomings.

Simplicity—the key to driving culture change

The beauty of the new approach was that while the questions were hard to answer, they were even harder to argue with. If you were responsible for delivering a goal, you were to chart the journey you were trying to make and develop a route that would credibly get you there. And as you traveled along the route, your were asked to keep your eyes open—adjusting your approach as you learned more about what works and what does not.

This simplicity was key to the approach’s success. The targets I worked on were not ones that the central team had prioritized, and so I got little direct attention. But I still knew the questions they wanted me to answer, and so did every senior public official. The central team had managed to rapidly spread awareness of the questions by repeating them regularly. And because the questions were so clear, they forced honesty in the dialogue between departments and the center of government. We were taught almost by osmosis the importance of focusing on delivery and what that meant.

The approach has evolved since 2001. There is now a stronger emphasis on deploying strategies that are likely to work and do so at the least cost. The newer fiscal environment has meant that approaches need to pass this value-for-money test, too. There is also a stronger realization that the most difficult problems require agencies to work with each other, and as a result the most recent set of targets were almost all interdepartmental by nature.

There is also a new understanding of the importance of government working with citizens to make a difference. Strategies to reduce childhood obesity, for example, are not something that belong to the health department alone—they need to belong to food, education, and other departments, too. Nor can these strategies be something the government does to society; they need to be undertaken with families. This leads to a greater emphasis on working with communities to develop solutions that are most likely to work with responsibility for success shared between government and citizens.

The Internet has also made it much easier for government to communicate with citizens and equally easy for those who are affected by government to play in role in shaping its services. But the basics of the approach remain unchanged—clarity about the goals, adopting strategies where the evidence shows they are likely to work, and refining the approach constantly to ensure that it actually accomplishes the goal.

Orszag and Zients could certainly learn from the British experience in moving forward. The key must be to ask agencies “why do you think your strategy will accomplish the goal?” rather than “what will you do?” And as time progresses, “is your strategy working?” or if things have gone off track, “how will you adjust your strategy to ensure that it accomplishes the goal?”

If the questions are kept simple but challenging, they will ensure there is a real focus on the importance of delivering the goals. And they may even lead to a lasting culture change across government where the focus is on doing what works to accomplish the goals rather than pursuing strategies that just sound like they might work.

This column focuses on how it felt to be an official working in the United Kingdom in the context of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. I am extremely grateful to Sir Michael Barber and Ray Shostak, the current head of the Delivery Unit, for commenting on an earlier draft of this piece. This piece omits a great deal of the detail, but for a fuller discussion of the U.K. approach, refer to Sir Michael Barber’s excellent book, Instruction to Deliver: Fighting to Transform Britain’s Public Services, published by Metheun.

Jitinder Kohli is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

This column is part of the Doing What Works project, which focuses on government reform and efficiency. Click here to learn more about Doing What Works.

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Jitinder Kohli

Senior Fellow