Innovation is the Holy Grail of governance practitioners worldwide – but, when it comes to public-sector management, is there truly a “science of delivery”? Politics is “the art of the possible,” and governing often seems to be more a skilled craft than a predictable science – requiring an ad hoc alchemy of persuasion, pressure, guile and gumption.
Yet beyond its operational finesse or its scientific rigor, strong governance also requires something more practical – and perhaps more painstaking: diligent management. Improving government agencies’ performance is a key priority for policymakers, and private-sector-style thinking – especially about delivering cost-effective results, on time and on budget – can make a constructive contribution to public-sector management.
Public-sector leaders must always design finely tailored solutions that suit ever-shifting political moods, but they can also adapt the most deft techniques – many of them tested in the private sector – that emphasize achieving tangible results. With a blend of the private sector's can-do drive and the public sector's focus on accountability, an imaginative crosscurrent of ideas enlivened a recent “deep dive” conference at the World Bank that explored a relatively new management mechanism: the results-focused executive “delivery unit.”
The World Bank Group’s Governance Global Practice (GGP) teamed up with a global nonprofit foundation, the Centre for Public Impact (CPI), to convene an expert group exploring this recent innovation in public-sector management. The gathering – “The Future of Delivery Units: Accomplishments, Challenges and New Directions for Reforms at the Center of Government” – was co-sponsored by the President’s Delivery Unit within the Bank Group.
The forum heard various perspectives from governance practitioners, political theorists and academic scholars, along with both practicing and former civil servants. Much of the conference-goers’ thinking also seemed to have been influenced by private-sector logic. The conference’s pragmatism was reassuring amid this year’s primal-scream spectacle, in all too many countries, of political dysfunction. For many good-government idealists, it’s been alarming to see the tumult in many once-stable, now-volatile developed economies where an advanced capacity for governing had seemed well-established.
Bob Beschel, the Global Lead of the Center of Government Global Solutions Group – part of the World Bank's Governance Global Practice – convenes the conference's opening session. Photo by Lana Wong.
The use of delivery units should be evaluated “in the context of management innovation,” as the conference chairmen – Bob Beschel, the Global Lead of the GGP’s Center of Government Global Solutions Group, and Adrian Brown, the Executive Director of CPI – told the participants. Indeed, such consulting firms as the Boston Consulting Group (which funds CPI) and McKinsey & Company have long aimed to bring private-sector-minded efficiencies to public-sector institutions. Having labored in those vineyards awhile, some years ago, I came to see how creatively cross-pollinating ideas can transfer knowledge about best practices among the public, private, social and academic sectors.