What’s in a word?


It’s awfully nice work, if you can get it, though I suspect a facility with words – specifically, the ability to pull them from thin air – doesn’t hurt.

Meet Sir Michael Barber, once a high-ranking serf in the former British government of Tony Blair and now co-chair of something called the Centre for Public Impact (a creature of the Boston Consulting Group).

He’s been hanging around Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s various offices of late, banging on about a little something he likes to call “deliverology”, which is, as near as anyone can tell, the art and science of getting things done in the civil service.

Actually, it’s a tad more complicated than this, as Sir Michael and co-authors Paul Kihn and Andy Moffit explained in their 2011 monograph, Deliverology: From idea to implantation.

“Now more than ever, governments are under pressure to deliver results in public services while ensuring that citizens’ tax dollars are spent wisely and effectively,” they write. “Nearly all governments – and individual public agencies – have set ambitious reform goals and developed strategic plans to achieve those goals. . .The challenge for public-sector organizations is to find ways to define and execute their highest-priority objectives so that they have the greatest possible impact.”

Enter deliverology, an approach the authors say “leverages and extends the key principles of best-in-class performance.” (In fact, they also say the word was originally crafted as “a light-hearted term of abuse” for the process adopted by the Prime Minister Blair’s Delivery Unit, and only later transformed into the expression it is today, replete with positive connotations).

Whatever its derivation, Prime Minister Trudeau and the Privy Council Office appears to be taking deliverology with deadly seriousness. News reports say that Deputy Secretary to Cabinet, Michael Mendelsohn, now runs the new Results and Delivery unit. According to Tony Dean, quoted by the Globe and Mail last week, “I suspect (he) will be talking to the Prime Minister and his senior staff about whether or not there are top-level, five or six, high-level priorities that the delivery unit will be initially rallying the system around.”

And why not? As silly as the word sounds, there’s some evidence that the management approach it represents actually works. Even the venerable, sometimes stodgy, Economist has given Sir Michael’s innovation a mild endorsement. “The lesson is that doggedness and consistency are of more use to the deliverologist than popularity,” a review last year of the former civil servant’s book on the subject reads. “(The) 57 rules for success range from the commonsensical – ‘Review the capacity of your system to deliver agreed goals’ – to the controversial – ‘Successful markets and effective government go together’, which has as many exceptions as proofs around the world. Yet this account of a potentially dry subject has an uplifting brio to it.”

All of which suggests, apart from anything else, that after years wandering the political wilderness in Canada, high-powered consultants have re-entered public life. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was famously intolerant of any advice, save his own, on how to run a government. Mr. Trudeau is a far more consultative sort. And it seems to be going around.

Last week, Brunswick News reported that one of New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant’s friends and, until recently, a provincial Liberal Party operative, has been recently enlisted by TransCanada to lobby the feds on the Energy East file. According to the story, Justin Robichaud will “seek government support for the proposed project, including updates on. . .development and stakeholder consultation progress.”

Can we then expect a little more pipeline deliverology in the offing?

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