Delivery Units 101

All citizens expect governments to make choices that are in our best interests, improve the quality of life within the country, and be transparent and upfront about the changes they would be making. The difficulties faced today by governments (and organisations alike) isn’t in the crafting of policies or plans but in implementing said policies to ensure that results or outcomes are delivered.

Several governments have begun utilising the idea of delivery units to overcome this implementation gap. In the UK for instance in 2001, the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) was set up under then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet to provide support and scrutiny across issues in the education, health, transport and justice sectors. Its efforts produced strong results. For example, dropping the number of patients waiting in emergency rooms for longer than four hours from over 23% to 2.3% in just two years. PMDU became a pioneer of the delivery unit model, starting a trend of delivery units being founded by governments seeking to enact and implement transformations of their own. The past two years alone have seen delivery units spring up in multiple countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Figure 1: Locations of delivery units in Latin America, the Caribbean and the world[1]

What is a delivery unit?

Delivery units are teams that concentrate on developing, implementing and monitoring transformational projects. Typically deployed by governments, they can operate at the state, local or national level to help ministries and government units monitor high priority policies and ensure the performance of these policies are on track.

These teams are small and highly skilled, able to gather and analyse a constant stream of performance data and watch out for any roadblocks. In the event that the desired results are not materialising on the ground, the teams will investigate and intervene. Some also scrutinise policy proposals to see whether implementation plans are feasible, and address delivery capability gaps in the public sector workforce through activities such as training and co-designing implementation plans.[2]

Do delivery units work?

Today, delivery units are an effective government implementation support that delivers measurable outcomes. While there is genuinely global appeal around the delivery model, as with any unit tasked to effect change, criticism is sure to abound – most of which surrounds sustainability of such units. Reports show that many of these new units have limited timescale of operations and in doing so, much of the criticisms are on “what happens next?” Like any other tool, understanding both the origin of delivery units and the value they bring will enable governments and organisations alike to use them to the best of their ability.

Below are the top four criticisms of delivery units and how to make them work for instead of against you.

1. Delivery units don’t last.

A report from consultancy firm Acasus points out that every delivery unit established more than ten years ago has been closed down, including those in the UK, the Netherlands, Indonesia, Australia (Victoria, Queensland and Canberra), Sierra Leone and Maryland.[3]

Figure 2: Location of past delivery units[4]

The thing to remember is that delivery units are not designed to last for years or ad infinitum. These units aren’t government departments; they’re formed specifically to work on a particular programme and should or will be disbanded once the project is done. Part of the mandate of delivery units is to build capacity and transfer their knowledge to existing government units who can carry on the methods and mindsets instilled. In this way, the results-oriented culture continues even after the unit has been disbanded.

In light of this, the measure of success for delivery units shouldn’t be in their continued existence or the length of their service, but the outcomes they deliver. For example, a delivery unit in Pernambuco, one of Brazil’s most violent states with 4,000 deaths a year, introduced the ‘Pact of Life’, a strategy improving data-gathering for decision-making used in weekly meetings organised by the delivery unit.[5] As a result, there was a 27.1% drop in the number deadly and violent crimes between 2007-2014. In contrast, the number of homicides in neighbouring states increased.

2. Delivery units are overly dependent on political backing.

Delivery units are often established by and report to the highest tier of governance; because of this, they depend on the authority invested in them by the leadership to function effectively. In Sierra Leone, the delivery unit introduced periodic reviews and increase accountability as part of its mandate to improve the ministries’ monitoring and follow-up capacities. Due to the unit’s location in the president’s office, they were able to substantially improve coordination amongst ministries and improve their ability to promptly identify bottlenecks and problems requiring presidential intervention and to adjust their strategies accordingly.[6]

Critics have pointed out that the delivery model falters when there is an administration change or when a transition of power occurs. In actual fact, there are delivery units who have survived transitions of power; it’s just the direction or the programme that changes. For example, Australia’s Cabinet Implementation Unit became the Strategic Co-ordination Unit after ownership was transferred to the Prime Minister’s Office.[7] Ownership aside, its responsibilities remain the same: to provide high-level, strategic policy advice and coordination. Delivery units are there to ensure that whatever was already planned would be implemented. They assist governments and organisations to deliver on the high-impact socio-economic outcomes which benefit both the public and business community. Transitions of power aside, the agenda to deliver impactful results should always be paramount.

3. Delivery units overpromise

Claudio Seebach, from the President’s Delivery Unit in Chile, remarked that “on one side, stretch targets help persuade people to work hard to get things done. But on the other side, you can aim too high and miss, or if communicated badly, people take what you achieve for granted so it is a fine line to tread. This means that you also need clear accountabilities – so everyone knows who is doing what.”[8]

Once the true north has been broken down into manageable, achievable parts, it is easier to see what progress has been made so far and how much is “too little”.

The Performance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) in Malaysia became a globally recognised and acknowledged expert in addressing Claudio’s comment. During their time within the Prime Minister’s Department of Malaysia, they had utilised their proprietary “lab methodology” to ensure that all stakeholders, from ministers to private sector and subject matter experts were brought together into a lab to discuss and collectively resolve issues at hand by implementing a 3ft programme geared at achieving outcomes.[9] The lab allowed these key people to pool their knowledge together, find solutions and agree collectively on how to move forward. This model is today adopted in several countries.

4. Delivery units are just a form of government propaganda

One of the greatest challenges facing governments is keeping up with public expectations of transparency and accountability. When the transformational agenda is not credible in the eyes of the public, it is seen as political propaganda and the veracity of the data produced during the project is questioned. Thus, even if positive results are achieved, the delivery model becomes discredited in the eyes of both the public and heads of governments. Wales’ First Minister’s Delivery Unit – now defunct – was regularly criticised for being “shrouded in secrecy” due to a lack of public awareness of its activities other than just giving Welsh leader Andrew RT Davies “a heads-up when he’s about to face criticism”.[10]

Regular progress updates are critical. Few countries publish annual reports on what has been done during the year or invite external review of progress made which does little to encourage transparency. Understanding this, many units today are proactively publishing information on the projects and providing stakeholders – including the public – with access to delivery plans and performance data. This has been done through mechanisms such as:

Table 1: Transparency initiatives undertaken by delivery units[11]

In Malaysia, PEMANDU overcame this by developing a public sector communication programme, holding several open days where citizens were exposed to the strategies and initiatives for the country’s National Transformation Project. Delivery unit members as well as policymakers were present during these events to answer questions and collect feedback from the public. PEMANDU believed that by doing this, the public would be fully informed of the plans made on their behalf and could keep the government accountable should progress on these goals falter. Furthermore, after a full annual cycle of implementation, annual reports illustrating the achievements, challenges and way forward are published to demonstrate greater transparency and accountability. Today, open days and annual reports are recognised as important steps in their Big Fast Results (BFR) – 8 Steps of Transformation™ Methodology when working with international governments and businesses.

On the value of delivery units

Acting more like policy SWAT teams deployed to expedite results, delivery units aren’t meant to change a whole country overnight. Their value lies in getting specific policies implemented and changing the culture of a government towards one that is results-driven, accountable and transparent. They can be used to break stakeholders out of their silos and bring them together to work on one common goal. Used correctly, the delivery unit can be a government’s best tool to bridge the implementation gap.

  1. Mariano Lafuente & Sebastián González (2018) Do Delivery Units Deliver? Assessing Government Innovation, IDB Technical Note [1]
  2. The Mandarin, 2017 [2]
  3. Acasus, 2017 [3]
  4. Institute for Government, Tracking Deliveryreport [4]
  5. Mariano Lafuente & Sebastián González, 2018 [5]
  6. Ibid. [6]
  7. Institute for Government, Tracking Delivery, 2017 [7]
  8. Centre for Public Impact, 2016 [8]
  9. To read more about PEMANDU’s lab methodology, read the World Bank report here: http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/malaysia/publication/driving-performance-from-the-center-malaysias-experience-with-pemandu.[9]
  10. Andrew RT Davies, 2015 [10]
  11. Institute for Government, Tracking Delivery report, 2017 [11]