A rigorous focus on delivery is key to government winning public trust. Using Delivery Unit/s (DUs) can be used to drive service delivery more effectively.
In an age of an increasingly active citizenry and deepening distrust of leaders, a rigorous focus on service delivery is one of the most powerful ways government can win back the public’s confidence.
Over the past five to 10 years there has been a deepening distrust between citizens and their leaders. This is also evident between employers and employees.
This decline in trust does not indicate a passive citizenry. Rather, community protests, petitions and public marches are evidence of citizen engagement and suggest a strong desire of citizens to claim space for political expression, democratic engagement and gain recognition for their concerns. Regrettably, these protests have sometimes turned violent, resulting in damage to property and even loss of life.
Instead of viewing this as a challenge, governments should see this as an opportunity to win back the public’s trust by fulfilling its mandate of service delivery excellence and creating alternative platforms for communities to express their views.
Government leaders should understand that there are many factors driving this scepticism. One is the perception that government projects have limited impact. In some cases, this is true, but there is little transparency to understand the failures and few processes to initiate remedial action.
To combat this perception and maximise the potential for producing results, governments would do well to rigorously focus on service delivery and create a culture that views delivery as one of its top priorities.
This may be easier said than done. But what if an approach is available that can help governments better balance where they spend their time? That is what a delivery-focused approach can do.
Having a strategy for executing a project is important, of course. The first step for any project is developing an evidence-based plan for achieving results and determining who is accountable for outcomes. But the plan doesn’t have to be static. At the heart of a delivery-focused approach is the need to think about implementation as a dynamic process rather than a linear one.
What does it mean?
It means that once the project gets off the ground, project staff are still thinking about how they can refine their implementation plan to make it better and stronger.
It means devoting significant effort to gathering and reviewing accurate and up-to-date data about what’s working and what’s not. And it means making changes that the data suggest will improve performance, and monitoring outcomes carefully to see that it does.
Once one cycle of review has been completed, the review can begin again to make use of new insights the data provides.
A common way to implement this approach is through a delivery unit, or office, that resides in the centre of government structures, whether this be at a municipal, provincial or national level. This set up is optimal because it conveys the office’s sponsorship by a senior executive and confers authority to the office. But just as important as institutional strength is the culture of government.
Through extensive work around delivery units, both in South Africa and globally, a central insight has been identified: Governments underestimate the crucial importance of dynamic implementation to good public policy.
This approach requires that Delivery Unit/s (DUs) start thinking about both the policy-making process and implementation from the outset.
The following core elements for designing successful DUs are:
- Clarity of mission: The DU should be clear about the specific role of the unit; the mission should be reflected in the number and types of initiatives it measures, its operational design, its staff, and the tools it uses.
- Limited number of priorities: A DU should have a focused number of priority initiatives for which it provides constant implementation support (less than 15 is recommended). While there can be low-effort monitoring of a larger number of government initiatives, DUs do not succeed when their resources are burdened with extensive tracking.
- Influential and dedicated leadership: The leader and the head of the DU should be fully committed to the mission. The head of the DU should also have the respect of officials across the government as some initiatives may be cross-cutting.
- Institutional independence: The DU should sit in the centre of government to maintain objectivity and serve the task of delivery, rather than a particular division or department’s mandate.
- Talented and motivated staff: Staff should be high-performing with a range of competencies including critical thinking, data analysis, and relationship management.
- Oriented to the frontline: The DU should be connected to the work happening on the ground on a day-to-day basis.
- Compact size: The DU should be a permanent office, but it does not need to be large – a small office and agile team is preferable. However, a “representative” model can be created in which each sub-unit (or Ministry) has a designated contact point who is trained in DU methodologies.
- Data-driven activities: The team should collect and use high-quality data to measure progress toward outcomes and drive more effective decision-making. The team may produce customised reports for leaders at different levels to showcase impact. It also may consider maintaining a public dashboard showing progress and accomplishments.
Another key insight is that delivery units can serve as a platform for multi-party collaboration to drive forward major socio-economic reform, bringing together business, government, organised labour and civil society to design and drive forward a common agenda.