Leading to Deliver for Successful Government | Sir Michael Barber | Voices in Leadership


DR. EDWARD MAILE:
Good afternoon. My name’s Edward Maile. I’m a Kennedy
Scholar and candidate for the Master of Public Health
in the Department of Health Policy and Management. I’m delighted to
introduce Sir Michael Barber as a speaker for today’s
Voices in Leadership series. Sir Michael is a thought
leader in education and has held a number
of influential positions throughout a distinguished
career spanning academia, government
and business. Sir Michael is currently
the Chief Education Advisor of Pearson, the largest
education company and largest book publisher in the world. He also chairs the Pearson
Affordable Learning Fund, a $15 million fund which
invests in companies providing high quality, scalable,
and low-cost education solutions in the
developing world. Sir Mike was head of the
Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in the UK government
between 2001 and 2005, reporting directly to then
Prime Minister, Tony Blair. In this capacity, he was
responsible for delivering major overhauls of
the public education system and the National
Health Service. He also developed the concept
of the delivery unit, which directs effective implementation
of government policy by cutting through traditional
bureaucratic inertia. This approach is very
successful in the UK and has been emulated in other
countries around the world, notably in Malaysia. Prior to Pearson, he was a
partner and head of McKinsey and Company’s global
education practice. He’s written a number of major
books and reports on education and was previously a professor
at the University of London in the Institute of Education. He studied history at
the University of Oxford and started his career
by training as a teacher. In 2013 Dean Julio Frenk
appointed Sir Michael as Distinguished Visiting
Fellow at Harvard School of Public Health. Before I turn the session over
to Doctor Michael Sinclair, who will be moderating
today, please join me in welcoming Sir Michael
Barber to the Voices in Leadership series at the
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: Thank
you, and I would also like to add my welcome,
Michael, and to all of you and particularly also
to our virtual audience and to invite the virtual
audience to send your questions to us via Twitter at Voices
HSPH, at Voices HSPH. And we’d be delighted
to have your questions. Michael, I am truly
intrigued as a product of a British colonial
outpost by the idea that you are a knight
of the British realm. And that to me conjures up
you jousting on the weekends and having tea with the Queen. Is it quite like that? SIR MICHAEL BARBER:
Not quite like that. You do, on receiving knighthood,
get to go to the palace and meet the Queen. And you do kneel in
front her, and she does put a sword
on your shoulders. But the jousting bit
I haven’t attempted. MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
So you don’t get to hang out with
William and Kate. SIR MICHAEL BARBER: No, no,
I haven’t had the opportunity to meet them, I’m afraid,
but maybe one day. MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
More seriously, though, it is the
highest award in the UK for services to the nation. I believe Tony Blair said of
your impact in his government that it was utterly invaluable. That is an extraordinary
accomplishment, the kind of accomplishment that
those of us in the ivory towers only aspire to. How do you make the
transition from good ideas to policy into practice? SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Well,
there’s no simple answer that. But probably the
biggest moment for me of taking that step from ideas
to implementation and practice was in 1997, so before
the Delivery Unit, when I went to work in the
Department for Education at the beginning of the
Blair administration. And at that time
in 1996 and 1997, Tony Blair and his then
education spokesperson and the first Education Minister
in the Blair administration, David Blunkett, had
been talking to me about what I wanted to do
when they were elected, if they were elected. And I was basically offered the
option of going into Number 10 and being the Blair
Education Advisor or going into the department. MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
So they knew you. How did they know you? SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Well, I’d
been a professor of education for a while. And for the whole
period between 1994, when Blair became leader of
the Labour party, and 1997, when he became prime minister, I
was involved in the small group of people that invented what
became new Labour’s education policy, helping to
write Blair’s speeches, writing policy documents. So I think it’s fair to say
we were better prepared, I wouldn’t say than anybody,
but we were very well prepared for what we wanted to do
if Labour won in 1997. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: So you
were an activist academic. SIR MICHAEL BARBER: I was
an activist academic, and I also– and this an
important point– I also did things for the
then Conservative government. So I was willing to be activist
on behalf of any party that was doing the kinds of things
I thought they should be doing. So, for example, in 1995,
it was a seminal moment in British educational history. The then Conservative government
wanted to, for the first time ever, use law to intervene
in an individual school because it was so bad. And I was on what the
press called “the hit squad” to decide whether
to turn this school around or to close it. There were five of us,
but I was the only one that lived in the borough
where this school was. And we decided to close it, and
it was all over the newspapers. So I was an activist
in the sense that, although I
was an academic, I really wanted to
make things change. And in 1997, offered the option
of being in the Number 10 or going into the
department, I chose to go into the
department, because that’s where the implementation, that’s
where you were going to get oil on your fingers and actually
try make things happen. And I’d never really
done anything like that. But I’d read quite a
lot of theory about it. And I’d also watched
with fascination the Conservative government
between the 1998 Education Act and 1997 trying
to do implementation and getting some things
right and some things wrong. So I thought, right, I’ll
go into the department. And we’ll just go for it,
and we’ll see what happens. And we’ll be ambitious. And it was quite
risky, actually, but on the other
hand, I was thinking I’m only going to get
one chance at this. And if I fail, I’ll go away
and I’ve learned something. And if it succeeds,
it’ll be fantastic. And it didn’t all succeed,
but lots of it worked. And it was a very exciting time. So that’s when I began to learn. And it was the result of
that that I then in 2001 was asked by Tony Blair
to set up a Delivery Unit. I’d been debating
with his team how to get Number 10 to work
more effectively on delivery. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: Where did
this delivery unit come from? That was his idea or yours? SIR MICHAEL BARBER:
I think he and I, we both like to
claim credit for it. But I think he and I
agree that it was my idea. [LAUGHTER] MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
For the record. SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Yeah. But you can ask him. But basically what I kept saying
to the Number 10 Policy Unit that existed in the first term
and that we in the Education Department were
often interacting with, I said to
them, kept saying, you don’t ask me all
the right questions. You ask me, have I
got any new ideas, and I’ll always have new ideas. But you never
really check, did I implement the last
one thoroughly? And we took the initiative
in the Education Department, because we thought it was a
good way of getting Tony Blair’s focus. We took the initiative
of asking them to review our progress
every couple of months. MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
So just to explain, the Delivery Unit
is a dedicated team of people committed to making
sure that the government’s programs and policies are
being implemented according to set targets. SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Yes. And at that time, in the first
Blair term– and everybody accepts this– the Policy
Unit didn’t really do that. It did some great
things, and it was a very talented group of people. But it didn’t routinely check,
were things getting done. So I wrote them a proposal
before the 2001 election and said, look, this
is how you could do it. You have could agree
plans, and then you could have
stocktakes, which we’d developed in the first
term in Education. And Tony Blair could use
a small amount of time really effectively to
monitor implementation of his priorities. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: So it worked? SIR MICHAEL BARBER: And
so they then decided they would do that. First I thought it was
an adaptation of Policy. But then we decided it
was a separate thing. And in 2001, Blair won
the election again. Basically, the British
people said to him, we like the speeches,
we like the direction, we like the economic
growth and we like what you’re trying to
do with the health service and reducing crime and so on. But we haven’t actually seen
much change on the ground. And so Blair– you know,
there’s this moment in Britain when you get an election
and the prime minister stands in front of the Number 10
door and makes a short speech. And all prime ministers
in that circumstance try to be humble, at least
for that few minutes. Margaret Thatcher
famously in 1979 quoted Saint Francis of
Assisi at that moment, and then forgot about him
for the next 11 years. [LAUGHTER] But in Blair’s
case, he says, I’ve now got a mandate for reform
and an instruction to deliver. And a few days
later he said to me, can you sum up
this Delivery Unit, because I’m passing
the instruction to deliver on to you. And yes, broadly speaking, we
think it was a great reform. MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
Blair, I assume, typifies what I
think you generally refer to as a purposeful leader,
purposeful leadership, somebody with a sense of mission,
vision, and the purpose to actually make it happen. But you gave him the roadmap. SIR MICHAEL BARBER:
Yes, yes, I think that’s true in broad
terms, and not just me. And he’d learned a lot. I think one of the things we
forget about politicians who get elected is it
takes a while to learn how to run a government. The media can tend
to assume that, because you’ve won
a campaign, suddenly you know how to
run a government. They’re two very, very
different activities. And you see it again and
again with American presidents and British prime ministers. They have to learn. And by the year 2000, roughly,
according to Blair’s memoirs– and I think it stands
up– he had really learned that if you were
going to get things done it wasn’t just about
speeches and white papers and the message and legislation. You actually had to have
a kind of technology, a system for making
sure things got done. And the health
service reform that was proposed in the year
2000, the 10-year plan, that was where he realized we
really need to do something. And they’d seen that we’d
made progress in education. And he put the two together. And he did have a real
purpose, absolutely. So, the beginning
of his second term, I’m going to reform
public services. That’s my mission. I want that to be my legacy. I’m going to get done. And your Delivery
Unit is the means, the mechanism that
will make happen. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: I’m very
interested in this concept of the backroom leader. We all know the public figures,
but behind those public figures are the people who really
make the wheels turn. How did you play that role? SIR MICHAEL BARBER:
So, I learned a lot about doing that,
obviously, and I’d learned a lot in the
four years previously. But the crucial thing
was I said to Blair right at the beginning, literally
on the day he was asking me if I’d do it, I can only do
this if you will pay attention throughout the whole term. I don’t need a lot of your time. I’m going to organize
that time properly. And when I ask for your time,
I need you to give it to me. I won’t ask very often, but if
I ask, it means it’s serious. And we did that deal,
and he basically did pay attention
right through the time. And then what I think
looking back on it, I think there was a real
piece of self-knowledge, which I think is critical for
a purposeful leader. You have to know
what you’re good at. And there’s lots
that he was good at. And you have to know
what you can’t do, but you can get other
people to do for you. And bringing system
and data and routines into the way things worked
was what I did for him. The other thing is
you’re being a leader but you don’t want to go
out and get public credit. You’re organizing it so
that other people get the credit, Blair,
obviously, but also if we make progress
on health or crime, the Minister of Health or the
Home Secretary gets the credit. So you’re being a
backroom leader. So humility is important and
then absolute persistence. A very, very crucial
moment for me was September the 11th, 2001. Obviously it was crucial
for millions of people around the world. Blair had been about
to deliver a speech and then came back when he
heard what was happening. And that afternoon–
UK afternoon– I passed his office. And there were lots of
people in that room. There were people who knew
about transport, people who knew about
security, people, I guess, from the Secret
Services, all kinds of people milling around the
prime minister, communications people. And my instinct was to go in
there and say, how can I help. But I didn’t do that. I realized in that
moment that my job was to keep the public service
reform show on the road. And from that moment on, I
knew that whatever distractions came up, my job was to
keep doing the agenda that we had agreed
in June of that year. It was now September. And I stuck with
that for four years. And Blair used to say to me, the
great thing about the Delivery Unit is I know that whatever
I’m doing, whatever crisis comes up– and we had the
war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq all the
way through that time– whatever I’m doing,
I know you’re doing the things I care
about and the British people care about. And my slogan back to him
was, delivery never sleeps, we’re 24 hours a
day on your case. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: Yeah. Leaders don’t always
play nice, though. And I believe it’s also been
said of you that you were the least Machiavellian of an
intrigue-riddled government. Famously, you got on
with both Chancellor of the Exchequer Brown and
Tony Blair, the prime minister, who were often at loggerheads. Talk to us about how you managed
these different leadership styles and how their leadership
styles were different. SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Well,
just one piece of context, I had a Quaker upbringing. This is relevant, because
my father was a pacifist. You learn a lot about
thinking through from other people’s
perspectives, reflecting, trying to get
peaceful reconciliation of contrasting views through
a Quaker education, a Quaker upbringing. It helped when I was working
in the teachers’ union, incidentally, but it really
came through in this. The other thing is
when people stop thinking that you’re trying
to promote your own career, then you’re actually
trying to get a job done, they listen to you. So they don’t think,
Michael’s just doing this because he wants to get x or y. He really wants to
get the job done. But some of it is that one way
to not appear Machiavellian is to be kind of
super-Machiavellian. So I read a lot about what other
units set up by Downing Street had done and then did opposite. So they tended to
ask for big budgets, so I asked for a small budget. They tended to get more
people and try and add more and more people. I didn’t do that. I put a cap right
at the beginning on the number of people. And then they tended to be kind
of flavor-of-the-month and then become part of the bureaucracy,
whereas I said to all the top officials in week one, I’m going
to try and abolish the Delivery Unit in three years, and if you
don’t want it to exist after three years, I’ll go away
and do something else. So I intentionally
defied the stereotypes. And then we set out an
agreement with all the officials and the ministers. We will behave like this, and
we won’t behave like this. And I said if any
of my staff are on the we won’t do
this list, I will stop that activity immediately. So that’s my deal with you. And I’ll come and see
you in three years, and if you don’t like
what we’re doing, I’ll go and do something else. And people were kind
of surprised by that. And you can call it
Machiavellian or not, but it was basically
establishing that we’re here to
get the job done. We’re not trying to
promote our careers. We’re not trying to
create a permanent part of the bureaucracy. And we won’t take any
credit for anything we do, or we won’t actively take,
if you give us credit, we’ll welcome it, but
we’re not looking for it. MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
Besides the rivalry between Blair and
Brown, obviously both are extremely accomplished
and talented leaders in their own right
but very different. How would you define
those differences? SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Well,
the rivalry came in the end from political ambition and
sometimes small but very significant disagreements
over policy. But when Gordon
was chancellor, he needed to make sure
that the biggest increases in public
expenditure in British history actually delivered results. And the Treasury didn’t have
a technology for doing that. And so I had to build a
relationship with Treasury officials under Gordon. So he trusted us as people who
would help him do delivery. He allocated the money,
he set some goals, but what happened in
between until then had been left to the department. And now we were monitoring
the key priorities. And Gordon came to trust
and understand the process. I think I’d characterize their
difference as leadership style that Tony was– he’s a
brilliant communicator, but he also built–
and I experienced this daily in Number 10– a
fantastic team of people who were collaborative,
liked working with him. There were some big egos
around, but basically we were all committed
to the mission. And we were in a
period of growth, and we were on an
upward trajectory. Gordon is actually more
like normal human beings. He agonizes over
things, he worries about things, has these
big visionary moments but then quite a
little of anxiety about getting things
done, brilliant on policy but kind of worrying
about all those things. And then there’s some
stuff on the record about the way the
team operated when he became prime minister that
doesn’t need repeating here, but really didn’t work. And that sense of we’re on a
mission, we’ve got momentum, and we’ve got a great team
that will help delivery I think was missing
in Number 10. Having said that,
Gordon did make a couple of major interventions
in the financial crisis that if he hadn’t done–
I’m talking globally, not just Britain–
things may have been a lot worse than they were. So he had moments of brilliance. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: Sadly,
leaders only get credit for the results,
not for the effort. Results really matter. And I think this is something
that you were very strong on. Is that something you
talked to Tony Blair about? SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Yes, a lot. And actually, interesting, but
if you look at Blair’s career, he got a super reelection
in 2001, lots of credit, even though actually if
you look at the results of the first term
they’re much more mediocre than the second term. The second term we
really delivered, but the credit he
got was much less. Then the Iraq War, that was
unpopular in large part. So the results really matter. But election results aren’t
decided just by results. What we used to say
in the Delivery Unit is the results matter
to the British people regardless of the
election results. And we’re going to try and
improve the health care system, make sure you don’t
wait too long. We’re going to help
drive big cuts in crime. We’re going to try and get
the trains to run on time. So we were really
focused on results. And for that you
need clear targets. Targets are controversial
in British politics. But you have to have them. You can call them
something else. Like David Cameron, who I
think has done a reasonable job as prime minister,
started off saying he was totally against targets. And within two months I heard
him on the radio saying, I’m going to make Britain a top
five destination for tourists. Now, you don’t have to call that
a target, but it is a target. So governments have
to set targets. If you want ambition,
if you want big change, you have to set
ambitious targets. But then you have
to have a plan. And you have to have a way of
tracking progress towards that, which generally means
data systems of some kind and being in touch. And that’s basically what we
put in touch for Tony Blair. That we put the
routines in place, which meant that the crises
didn’t prevent progress. We got the data systems to work,
which we reported regularly to Blair and periodically
to the cabinet. And when the data
revealed problems, it meant we were
identifying things going wrong before
there was a crisis, and we solved the problem. And we were always committed
to achieving the goal. MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
And he was always responsive to your change of
direction if that was needed? SIR MICHAEL BARBER: He
was always open to it. And sometimes you’d debate it. And often it was a debate. In the stocktake
meeting it would be Blair on one
side of the table and the Minister of Health
on the other, or whichever minister it was, and
a handful of people on each side of the table. And we would do genuine
problem solving. And we had an agreed
evidence base. I can’t emphasize how
important getting the data is. It sounds boring. Bean-counters are
kind-of derided. Bean-counters are
really important. You can make your best Henry V
inspirational speech on the day before the Battle of Agincourt,
but if the soldiers don’t have boots, and they
haven’t got their bows, and they haven’t
got their arrows, they’re going to lose the battle
against the French however good your speech is. Somebody’s got to
count the beans. We were doing that. And we were getting
really good data. And the key thing–
this is the bit that gets missed in governments–
the key thing with data is you’ve got to
get it in real time, you’ve got to ask the
right questions of it, and then you’ve
got to present it so that even a prime
minister can understand it. You’ve got to do all
three of those things. MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
And then you’ve got to deal with
the bureaucracy. So how do you overcome the
institutional resistance to change, bureaucratic inertia? SIR MICHAEL BARBER: That’s
huge in most governments. And at the beginning the
British Mandarins, beautifully captured in Yes,
Minister and Yes, Prime Minister,
those famous series, they were thinking, well,
this unit isn’t going to work. We’ve seen off units
like this before. So you have to
kind of find a way of making them think
you’re different. So I described a few
minutes ago how we set out to be quite different
from any other unit. And then when they realized
we had a really good team of people– I’m a big fan of
small teams of great people who are committed to
mission, so delivering it with a small team
with a real purpose– when they saw that we were
helping them solve problems that were on their desk,
they appreciated that, especially as we
were giving them the credit with their minister
and the prime minister. So we’d say, so and
so, permanent secretary of such and such department
has solved this problem. Then they begin to
think, this is OK. The other thing
they really liked is Number 10 changed
from something that kept asking for a
new idea every few weeks to a real persistent drive. So the agenda stayed the same. And part of my job, my
commitment to the departments was we’re asking you for
this outcome now in 2001. It will be the same in
2002, the same in 2003. We’re going to
persist with this. And persistence is a great
part of serious leadership if you’re talking about
change on the ground. MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
And as you’ve worked around the world, are there
other leadership qualities that have jumped out at
you as you’ve met different leaders in
different capacities? SIR MICHAEL BARBER: I think I
mentioned a few minutes ago, I think self knowledge–
none of us, whether we become
leaders or not, can know, can be good at everything. So knowing what
you’re not good at and then finding people to do it
for you and with you, I think, is really important. I think the great
political leaders in a time of rapid
change, such as the one we’re living through, the
great political leaders need to be able to
level with people about what
globalization will mean. I think Blair was
very, very good. Blair’s best speeches and
constantly repeated refrains about how the world
is changing, and we need to be ahead of that
game, were really important. I think countries
run into trouble when their leaders don’t have
the courage and the capacity and the language to
explain the world we’re in and how it’s changing. I think of it as if you’re in
a balloon over a landscape. You can see what’s
coming ahead of you. And you’ve got time. And the great leader
can spell that out. But they can also know
that to change what’s coming you need to be on the
ground in the weeds getting it, paying attention to detail. One of the things I really
hate in strategy books– and this is a lesson
for the students who read all these
books about leading and leaders and
strategy– and it says, leaders do big strategy and
leave the detail to others. Absolutely not true. You’ve can’t be on
top of all the detail, because you don’t have time. You’ve got to know which
details to pick on. You’ve got to have somebody who
really does know the detail. And you’ve got to have
somebody counting the beans and reporting to you
what’s happening. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: Let’s
take a few questions. I’m sure people would like
to talk to you as well. Are there questions
in the audience? Yeah, go ahead. AUDIENCE: Hello there,
thanks so much to Michael. I’m John Hintze. I’m a visiting student
at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. There’s a former special
advisor, Dominic Cummings, who used to work
for Michael Gove in the Department of Education. And one of his critiques
of the civil service is it’s not reflective enough. You’ve talked a lot
about how you’re trying to get
things on the ground but haven’t talked a lot
about civil service reform. So it’s quite easy
for civil servant perhaps to be
obsequious, to make his boss think he’s doing
a good job, and he’s not. So I was wondering
if you could talk about what you’d like to
see in civil service reform, maybe bringing in more
experts, having people not change departments so
often, whatever you think. SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Yes. Civil service reform is an
important aspect of this. And you’re right, I haven’t
mentioned it so far. What I think Blair would
admit that in his first term he didn’t understand
sufficiently the importance of changing the way
the civil service operated to get the
delivery that he wanted. So, for example,
there were swathes of government commitments
for which there was no plan. There were swathes of specified
targets for which there was no data system to count
the progress towards it. So, you would think
that if you set a target to reduce waiting
times, the civil service will be thinking, well, how
do I collect the data on that, how do I make sure it’s working. Actually, the Department
of Health did do that. But we had commitments
to cut crime, but no way at the national level
of knowing what the 43 police forces were doing. You’d think that
would be automatic, but it wasn’t automatic. I think what we did in
the Delivery Unit was provide a challenge
to the civil service, but we got the tone of it right. So we weren’t running around,
like in the West Wing, and banging the
table and saying, the prime minister
is incandescent or he’s furious or whatever,
even if he sometimes was. We went around
saying, well, hang on, how are you going
to change this? How are you going
to get it done? Can we help you? Have you seen this part of
the civil service over here that’s already done
something like this? Why don’t you go
and talk to them, I know it’s another department. And then around the
delivery priorities we were making sure that
permanent secretaries put good civil servants
with a good track record and kept them in the post for
a significant period of time. And what I’m always cautious
about with governments is civil service reform as some
kind of big agenda in itself. I’d rather reform
the civil service to deliver some
specified outcome. So if that’s what
we want to do, how do we need to change the
civil service to get it done? And there’s a lot in what I’ve
written about this, but getting to civil service to focus
on delivering some outcomes, doing good plans, which you’d
think they were good at, but we found they were
frustratingly poor at. They could write essays. They could put glossy
covers on essays and send you a beautiful report. But they couldn’t do a
real operational plan that had coffee stains on the corner
and marmalade because they’d been checking it that
morning over breakfast. That’s what you want, real
operational plans that says we’re going to
do this by that date, and this is the
person responsible. So there was the thing about
planning and then getting data systems. And it’s true. You quoted Dominic Cummings. It’s true that I
think until even now parts of the civil service
process are kind of assumed. They’re built into
the way they work, but they’re not
conscious, and they’re not specifically improvable, because
they haven’t been described. There is now a trend
towards doing that. We in the Delivery Unit,
for example, a stocktake is a simple thing. It’s an hour-long meeting
between a prime minister and minister to review progress. We defined a stocktake. We knew exactly
what that was like. We had a website with them on. Somebody on my staff
was responsible, not just people responsible
for each stocktake, but they were responsible
for improving stocktakes in general. And they’d be consulting people. How did that work? How can I make it better? So by making it explicit,
we made it improvable. And this is a really
important part of the process of delivery. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: How did
you get the civil servants on board? SIR MICHAEL BARBER:
Well, one thing you need to do, on the whole,
the British civil service– and I think this is
generalizable– wants to do stuff that a government
with power and influence wants to do. And so the united ministerial
team cabinet led by Blair, that was an
important part of it. Showing them how to
do things, giving them credit for doing it,
but most importantly, when they did the things
that we advised them to do, they found it really rewarding. So a classic example,
there was a group of people whose job it was
to reduce road congestion. And they were just thinking
this is impossible. And we said, well, how
do you collect the data? They said, well, we have
12 people who drive around the country and call in
every year or two and say, it’s getting worse. [LAUGHTER] This is true. I know this is on the record. So we said, well,
what about the GPS? What about global
positioning system, supposing you could count every
minute and every hour of what was happening on Britain’s
motorways and state highways, you call them in America,
or on the A roads. And six months
later, we had that. And they resisted that
idea, because they said, it’s going to be
expensive, we’ll never use it. But once they got it, they
could monitor progress, they could intervene. They knew what caused
traffic delays. Suddenly the system
became manageable. Similarly on crime, once we got
the data collection system that allowed you to compare
the 43 police forces, we could get the civil
servants saying, well, how come Liverpool’s cut street
crime and Bristol hasn’t? Your job becomes doable. And that’s the most
important aspect to this, because it then becomes
quite intoxicating. You think, I’ll wait
for the next set of data and see what we can do then. We had exactly the
same experience in Punjab and Pakistan, just to
show this isn’t British, purely British, where once we
got the monthly data collection from 60,000
schools– at the beginning the civil servants were
totally skeptical about it. And then by the end they
were the biggest enthusiasts, because suddenly
the job was doable. I think that you have
to get to people. There’s a big mistake that
people make in leadership. You think you win hearts and
minds and then get the action. But actually, really you
have to do both at once. You have to get the action,
because you can only win the hearts and
minds by showing people how the different
looks and feels. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: And so you
empowered them in a sense, and they felt better for it. SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Yes. Plus the civil servants in
charge of this programs, when they began to deliver they
were in the stocktake. And we’d say to them, will
you present this to Tony, to the prime minister? And so they get the credit. They get their moment of glory. For some of those
civil servants, that’s their one time when
they ever sat in the Number 10 cabinet room and presented
to the prime minister. They’ll remember it forever. MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
Were there some whom you couldn’t win over? SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Yes, sure. And a quiet word to
the permanent secretary and somebody could be moved. So absolutely. Look, let’s not
pretend it’s all easy. You know, there’s some
hard pieces of this. And people who were
unwilling or not the job, you can’t usually fire
a civil servant totally, but they can be moved to
other less important tasks that they might be better at. MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
Aha, that’s the trick. More questions. Yes. AUDIENCE: Hi. My name’s Rosa. I’m an MPH the Health Policy
student here at the school and also a writing fellow at the
Harvard Public Health Review. I’m going to steer
the discussion to health just for
a little while. In the context of
America, where patients are viewed as consumers
with a lot of autonomy to choose their providers as
well as their health insurance plans, as someone who’s worked
at the health policy arena as well as the education
policy arena, do you see a role
for health literacy and improving health literacy of
the public as a potential tool to improve health outcomes
somewhere like America? SIR MICHAEL BARBER:
By health literacy, I’m assuming you mean
knowing more about health and what makes for good
health in your life. AUDIENCE: Yes, [INAUDIBLE]
financial literacy combined with that
as well to make these choices more informedly. SIR MICHAEL BARBER:
Well, I think one of the very important
trends around the world is exactly in that direction. So, I’m not an expert on
health in the way that you are. But the 20th century
model of health care system, or second
half of the 20th century, where basically it’s
assumed you’re well, and then when you get
ill hospitals fix you. I’m slightly exaggerating. That model is both not
sufficiently effective and it’s too expensive. And so getting people
to know more about how to manage their own health,
to decide what they eat, what exercise they do, what
they do or don’t drink, what they do or don’t
smoke, all of these things are really important
parts of the future. And I think it was a
debate we had in the Blair administration, where we used
to talk about our policy, and it got summarized as
schools and hospitals. But the health people
were saying, well, it’s not really about hospitals
anymore, or not so much. And it took a while to move
on to the whole broader public health and what you’re
calling health literacy. But I do think that’s important. It’s also very important
in the developing world. You still see lots of developing
world countries thinking that health policy
is about building more and more hospitals. But actually it’s
about these things. So I do think that’s important. And in America, obviously,
the financial literacy that goes with it is
important if you don’t have a fully funded public
health care system. And just as a general principle
I think choice for citizens is both good and probably,
depending on the service, is good for outcomes, because
that brings some competition. So I think I’m in
favor of choice. But you want that choice to be
as well informed as possible. And so if you think there
are citizens that you’re going to offer choice
to who won’t have the information available,
making it available, finding ways of giving them
access to that information, giving them advice where they
need it I think is important. And we did do that in the Blair
health reforms when we said, when you’re diagnosed and
you need an operation, you can choose a hospital
anywhere in the country where you can go. And if you want you can
access this choice advisor who will help you
make that decision. That’s what we were
thinking about. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: Were your
reforms in education and health in particular
sustained post-Blair? SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Broadly
I think on education they’ve definitely been sustained. And indeed, the current
Conservative government, led at the education level by
a very charismatic politician called Michael Gove
until recently, really took the Blair
agenda and drove it hard. It wasn’t perfect, but I
think he got a lot done. And it’s really built and
it’s made those reforms irreversible. I think on health,
I’m not sure what the current Conservative
coalition government would say, but I think they probably lost
some momentum on health care, whereas I think
what they inherited was a system that was
actually working quite well. I think they’ll get
it back on track. And interestingly, the head of
the National Health Services was the health advisor to Blair. The current head,
Simon Stephens, was Blair’s health
advisor back when I was in the Delivery Unit. He’s the best person you
could possibly appoint. And he’s spent time here in
between those two things. He’s the best person
you could possibly have doing that health reform. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: Interesting. More questions. Yes, sir. AUDIENCE: Hello. I’m Jacob West, another
Brit, I’m afraid. I’m a visiting fellow at
the School of Public Health, also worked under the last
two Labour prime ministers. Michael, very interesting talk. Just wanted to get your
reflections on how you might apply what might be perceived
as quite a centralist delivery approach in a world in which
increasingly, particularly in the UK, we’re trying to
deliver public services more from the bottom up, lots
of reforms in health care, giving hospitals more autonomy. In fact, the whole NHS is itself
meant to have more autonomy. Indeed, in education similarly,
with free schools and academies and so on. Does it still work
in an environment where you’ve got that
kind of approach? There’s no Delivery Unit
anymore as I understand it. How is this government
trying to approach that? SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Yeah. It’s a good question. I just want to start with a
point of general principle here. I say this often. The road to hell is paved
with false dichotomies. And there are very
few reforms that are totally centralizing or
totally bottom-up, or very few successful ones. And the successful
ones are probably going to be a
combination of both. Michael Gove, the outgoing
Education Secretary, now Chief Whip in the
current coalition government, he completely
understood that in order to create greater
school autonomy he needed a powerful central
drive from the Department, because in order to
get the devolution, you need the central power. When I was working
for Tony Blair and doing the health
reforms, we completely understood that to bring in
private providers of knee and hip operations wasn’t
going to happen bottom-up. It would’ve been resisted
by the NHS, which was a monopoly provider. To break the monopoly you
needed the power of the center. So one of the ironies is that
to get effective devolution and greater autonomy at
the front-line level, you have to have a powerful
center to make that happen. The two went together. And even if you
devolve everything out, if you’re a prime
minister and you’ve made some commitments to
the electorate that you’re going to do x, y, and z
or whatever it might be, you still need to track
progress towards delivery. And if it’s not working you need
to be saying to the autonomous body, well, we made
a commitment to this, and we’ve given you
the autonomy to do it. But here’s the evidence. What are you going
to do about it? I know there was a critique
of why I did it in the Blair administration, that it
was very centralizing. I don’t see is a centralizing. It’s seeing government
from the center, because you’re in
Number 10, but it’s not centralizing int its
impact, necessarily. You can choose. Whether you want to devolve or
whether you want to centralize, you can drive it
from the center. But in the end if you’re going
to deliver health outcomes or reduce crime,
whichever your strategy you need to check and
have the data to know whether it’s working or not. I shall give you an
example from history. So that I was looking
because I’ve just finished writing
something about this. And the routines
that we established in the Blair administration
of the stocktake that came around every two
months if you were Health Secretary or every two
months if you were Home Office was important. And then every month there was
a note to Blair on the health reforms, a note to Blair
on crime, a note to Blair on education. Those routines are really
important for driving progress. And again, that’s
not centralizing. It’s just putting it
in place, making sure that the prime minister is
informed whether your reform is centralizing or not. But the [INAUDIBLE] is this. MI-5 in the war,
1943, were worried that Churchill wasn’t paying
them enough attention. They had exactly the
same debate that we had, which is how do we make
sure Blair stays interested. And the answer was, well,
we’ll write him a monthly note. We’ll make sure it’s
really well-written, and we’ll make sure it has
some compelling data in it, and it goes on a routine basis. So they start doing it. Because they wanted
it well-written, they decided they
were going to get their best writer to write it. And it was a guy
called Anthony Blunt. Anthony Blunt, it turned out in
the 1970s, was a Russian spy. So the amazing thing
about the monthly note to Churchill from
MI-5 in the war is that it was cleared by
the Russian Secret Service before it went to Churchill. That is incredible. Our note was much
more boring than that. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: You think
the Russians read it anyway? SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Of
course, at that time Russia and Britain and America
were temporarily allies. But even so, it’s
an incredible thing. And they were just thinking
about how to do that. And their notes are much
more interesting than ours. They say, you know, we’ve
identified 140 German spies, 24 of them have
been turned around and are now double-agents,
17 have been eliminated, whatever it is. The monthly note is in
the history of MI-5, if you want to look it up. But my point is
you need routines, and you need to inform
the prime minister. And if the prime minister
or the government is trying to deliver something,
whether it’s devolution, whether it’s greater
autonomy, they need to know whether
that’s happening or not. And if it is happening,
that’s great. And if it isn’t happening, they
need to do something about it. I don’t think it’s centralizing. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: You have
been called the control freak’s control freak,
among other things. And I could go on. My favorite here
is mad professors gone global from some of your
friends in the United States who’ve welcomed you here. How do you deal with
contrary opinions? SIR MICHAEL BARBER:
It’s interesting. I’ve been called
all those things. I’m on a website here
in the United States as the seventh most scary person
in American education reform. Arne Duncan, by
the way, is eighth, so I’m quite proud
of being on this. But what I always
found in those– it’s not much fun being
criticized like that. You can laugh some of it off. The most important thing– and
I’d say this to the students if you’re thinking about
leadership positions– the most important thing is that
you’ve got your base covered. In the end– and
this is the part about being the leader in
the shadows– in the end, I’m working for Blair. So if Blair is happy, it doesn’t
matter what they think out there, because I’m
doing the job for Blair. And Blair is where my
power emanates from. He’s the person who’s elected. I’m just an official. And that gives me my
opportunity to change the lives of the
British citizens. The same in Punjab, where
sometimes the education reform gets criticized. But as long as the
chief minister is happy, trusts you, believes in it, you
just have to go through that. And you’re not going
to make any big change in the public service
without being criticized. If everybody loves you,
almost certainly not making that much difference. So I think you just have to
be ready to go through that. Are we doing the right things? What’s the evidence saying? You usually know
sooner than people out there whether
this really will work. You go through a period
where you’re being criticized and in the end it comes through. Sometimes you have to wait
until long after you’ve gone. There’s now academic
evidence showing that the way the Delivery Unit
approached things stands up, because you compare England
to Scotland and Wales on health reform, and
England comes out better. But we didn’t know that then. But you just have to
do what you believe in and ensure that your
base is covered. In the end, if Blair is
losing confidence in you, obviously you’ve got a problem. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: Then
you’re in trouble. We had another question
here somewhere. Yes, sir. AUDIENCE: Hi. My name’s George Greenbury. I’m an EDEM candidate at the
Harvard School of Education. Please forgive the
facial hair ensemble. I’m in a theater production
in the Loeb at the moment. You’ve talked a
lot about targets. My question is fairly simple. How can you make
specific targets generate general improvement? And to give a concrete example,
the 5A*-C including English and maths, GCSE target
for students in the UK, drove improvement in that
area for a number of years. But I had the misfortune
of starting my career in a school which had as part
of the Teach First program prioritized that at
the detriment of things like all sports within school. They actually cut out ironically
a huge number of GCSE options so they could offer
BTEC equivalencies, and therefore narrowed
the kind of curriculum they were offering. And so I’m not sure how
much education or education provision in that school
improved generally despite that specific
target which was improving. So how can you kind
of ensure that? SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Well, it’s
a very important question. The question basically is about
when you set targets and use particular data systems, what do
you do about the gaming of it. I don’t want to get into a
debate for a global audience about the details of the
British qualifications at 16, although it’s a
perfectly interesting debate, and it’s a good question. I think first of all being
thoughtful at the point of constructing a
target, how ambitious do you want to be, when do
you want the deadline to be, what data are you going
to use to check it, what might the negative
consequences be, and how do you check whether
those are occurring or not. What we found in the Delivery
Unit looking across the board was that sometimes when you
set a target, of course, there are lots of people
that they don’t want the pressure that will
come from the target, and they come up
with all these things that are going to go wrong. So we would say
to them, OK, we’ll check whether that’s
going to go wrong. So you’d say to the police,
we want to cut street crime. They’d say, yes,
you can do that, but if you do all the other
crimes will get worse. We’d say, we’ll check. And then what we
discovered is the people who cut street
crime fastest also cut the other crime fastest. So we can blow out
that as an urban myth. So constructing the target, the
degree of ambition you want, and the mechanism or
the data system you’re going to use to check
it is important. And then predicting where
the gaming might occur and checking it. The other thing is to
prove real improvement you need to see what’s happening
on indicators that are nothing to do with your own
indicator system. So I’ll give you an example
from the first Blair term. We set a target to improve
literacy for 11-year-olds by 2002. And we actually made a lot of
progress towards the target, but missed it. It was a very ambitious target. How do we know that
was real improvement? Well, one, we audited the
data collection system, but two, the
international comparisons showed England going from being
like 17th in the world in 1995 to 3rd in the world in
2000 on a sample test taken among 10-year-olds,
so not 11-year-olds, a totally different data system. Now you’ve got two data systems
pointing the right direction, you say, that’s almost
certainly real improvement. So I think governments need
to look for alternative data systems that could confirm that,
yes, what the GCSEs are showing is real and genuine improvement. The other thing finally
to say is sometimes you’re setting a target in
order to set a priority. And that will have
consequences for things that are not a priority. And you shouldn’t feel
ashamed about that. That’s what priorities mean. Setting priorities is hard, and
it does have the implication that some things
are less important. So I’m not making the argument
in relation to school sport, for example, but I am
making the argument that, when you set a
target and set a priority, it will have consequences. And they may be, in
effect, what you wanted. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: There’s a
question right next to you. AUDIENCE: I didn’t
want to end the trend of having British
people speaking. My name’s Doctor Luke Allen. I’m a student here doing
an MPH in global health. My question is how have your
positions of authority helped or hindered your ability
to exercise leadership in the organizations that
you’ve been a part of. SIR MICHAEL BARBER:
It’s a nice question. And by the way, I’m delighted
to see so many British students at this global center
of academic leadership. I think it’s a good question
that you could talk about for a long time. I think what’s helped
is seeing the world from a lot of
different perspectives. So, over the course
of the last 25 years I’ve been a teacher
union official, I’ve been a
professor, I’ve worked for the Department of Education
in an implementation capacity, I’ve run the Delivery Unit,
then I’ve been at McKinsey, and now I’m working
as Chief Education Advisor for a global
education company and helping to try and bring
about a company transformation. So seeing different perspectives
has been really helpful. The second thing is,
and I’ve said this to many of the people
who’ve been my boss, effectively, over
the last 25 years, is I always find myself
slightly on the edge of an organization as
an internal critic. So in the Delivery Unit
we’ve been talking about, I was technically
a civil servant but seen as a Blair
insider, and definitely a critic of the civil service
but a kind of friendly critic that they would say things
like, well, Michael’s all right, really, even though
I was driving them crazy. And that being a little bit
the same inside of Pearson, so I’m on the
executive committee. I was there negotiating
my budget yesterday, but I’m also seen as
slightly an outsider. I’m an educator that spans
across lots of things. I’m a person who’s
been in government. And I’m an internal
critic trying to drive the reform
faster, and the same was true when I worked
in a teacher union. And so I’ve found
that positioning, I call it being in
the borderlands, actually being a good
place to make change from. And it means you
can be an innovator. And you don’t get totally
absorbed into the system as it is, because a favorite
phrase of Tony Blair that I totally agree with
is when you’re given a task, don’t accept the parameters. I’m one of those people that
doesn’t accept the parameters, and you challenge
them, and sometimes you end up having to
accept them, but you don’t have to accept
them at face value right at the beginning. So challenge the parameters,
see the organization in as though you’re outside it
trying to make it different or on the edge of it. I’ve found those two
things extremely helpful. And then there’s a degree of
obsession which gets to you, the control freak phrase. You have to obsess
about the details. And I’ve a phrase that
if you’re about to give the benefit of the
doubt, ask yourself why you’re so doubtful. Generally speaking,
most of the mistakes I made, and there were
many in eight years in the British
government, it was when I gave somebody the
benefit of the doubt. And actually my
instinct which didn’t come from inside
my head, it came from some data or
something I heard, was there was a problem here. And generally speaking,
there was a problem. Giving the benefit just delayed
things and made it harder to solve in the long run. MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
Another question? Yes, ma’am? AUDIENCE: OK, thanks, Michael. My name is Koko,
I’m an MPH student from the School of Public
Health, and I’m not British. And so my question is
about online education. Currently more and
more universities are offering online
courses through platforms such as Coursera from
Stanford and edX from Harvard. So they definitely make
education easier to access and more affordable to
everyone in the world. So do you expect that
such online platforms will fundamentally change the future
dynamics of education, and how? Thanks. SIR MICHAEL BARBER: Well, in
the British Parliament when you get in question time,
one of the classic answers is somebody asks you
a question and you say, I refer the honorable
lady to my previous reply. My reply about the
road to hell being paved with false dichotomies
is relevant here. I don’t think that
online education is going to replace
face to face education. I do think that the
combination of online education and a range of
other technologies, including the one that we’re
using right now, incidentally, where you can speak
to people in a room and have a proper
dialogue, but also be accessed by people all
around the world in real time and later on film, these
new combinations provide us with lots of
opportunity to improve the quality of
education dramatically, and we need to seize them. But right now we’re not quite
sure how it will work out. I’ve written about this
in a document called An Avalanche Is Coming. And what we set out in there
is that the different functions of a university can be done by
a range of different providers, and each university’s going to
have to work out for itself how to improve the quality
of its teaching and learning, what it’s going
to be truly exceptional at. I think that there
will be for as far as I can see into the future
and hopefully forever lots and lots of students who want
the face to face interaction with really good academic
teachers who can debate ideas with them. But that doesn’t
mean they’re all going to want to sit in
front of an hour-long lecture and then go away. It means they might well want
to watch an online lecture and then have a real debate
with a professor about what it means. So you can see all
these different ways of changing teaching
and learning. So I think there will be
lots of new combinations. I don’t think the students
coming out of schools now as they come into
universities will tolerate sitting in lectures for an hour
not really paying attention. There’s some research that
shows that the amount of brain activity in a student
while they’re in a lecture is slightly less than
while they’re asleep. [LAUGHTER] So the traditional
lecture may be doomed, but face to face education,
real debates about ideas both with your
peers in real time and with great
professors is important. Mentorship is really important. And it’ll be combinations of
technology that transform this. I think the MOOCs will
make a contribution, but I don’t think
that’s the future that’s going to replace the present. I think it’s one contribution
to this avalanche of change that’s coming. MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
There’s a famous saying that a leader without followers
is a person out for a walk. What do you do when
nobody follows? SIR MICHAEL BARBER:
It’s a great question. And one of the things
about being followed is where are you trying to go? So have you set out
some kind of vision? Secondly there’s who you
are and what you’re like, and whether people
are willing to, to use a phrase from another
world, get out of bed for you, as it were, and act for you. And so the quality of the
goal where you heading and who you are and what
you’re like is important. And Blair was somebody
those of us around him really wanted to help
deliver our agenda, partly because we
believed in him and partly because we
believed in the agenda. So I think those two
things are important. And then there comes a
moment when you set off and nobody really
comes with you. And that’s a kind of
hold-your-nerve moment, because a lot of people
in a change program when you first propose
it, they’re skeptical. A few will be
totally against it. Some will think, well, they’re
not really going to do it. Some will think,
it’s a good idea, but it didn’t work last time. And then when they see you’re
actually going to do it, quite a few people will say,
yeah, I want to do that. But the really important thing
is that your goal is clear, that you represent
something that people want. And then they have
to believe you’ve got a plan that
might actually work. So I often talk about
the implementation dip. You start off on one
of these big things and you’ve got to get through
the implementation dip. And in your metaphor
of the walk, that’s when people
might not be coming. And after a while– it works
with 3-year-olds, doesn’t it? So those of you that have
got small children here, you can turn around
say, come on, come on, and they just dawdle
more and more. And eventually if you just walk
on they usually follow you. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: Takes nerve. SIR MICHAEL BARBER:
It does take nerve. It does absolutely take nerve. And I think that is
really important. And I think constantly telling
people where you’ve come from, where you’re going, and what
the strategy looks like, so it’s a convincing story. MICHAEL SINCLAIR: So that
would be your takeaway message to the students here,
hold your nerve? SIR MICHAEL BARBER: It would
certainly be one of them. My takeaway message would
be be ambitious, for sure, persist at this moment, so
hold your nerve, definitely. Don’t forget the data. Margaret Spellings, the
Republican, the Bush Secretary for Education used to
say, in God we trust, for everything
else we need data. I think it’s really important. And finally, have integrity,
because in the end people have got to believe
in you as a person if you’re going to be a leader,
and what you’re like and how you relate to people,
integrity of the goal, but also integrity of how you
go about delivering the goal. MICHAEL SINCLAIR:
Michael, thank you. It has been an
absolute delight and I think extremely
informative to all of us. I’ve known you for
some time, but I’ve learned a great deal
from you here today, and I hope that
everybody else has. Those of you who want
to talk to Michael beyond this conversation
can Tweet him on @MichaelBarber9,
@MichaelBarber9, and he apparently responds
to all friendly Tweets. And we remind you that
the series continues next year beginning in
January with Doctor Leslie Ramsammy, who is
the Agricultural Minister from Guyana. And the date will be
advertised shortly. Thank you all for being here. Happy holidays. SIR MICHAEL BARBER:
Thank you very much. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Thank you. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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