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The delivery challenge: A systematic approach to achieving breakthrough impact

By Eoin Daly, Jens Riese, and Seelan Singham
The delivery challenge: A systematic approach to achieving breakthrough impact

We have developed a 10-step approach to help governments deliver impact that can greatly improve their citizens’ lives.

Delivery challenge

Governments are under increasing pressure to improve public services and stimulate economic growth. Citizens now expect them to deliver results in shorter time frames, often at lower cost, and they may become dissatisfied if officials do not meet these expectations.

Although public-sector leaders may know what they want to deliver—for instance, better healthcare services, improved learning outcomes, or more efficient public transportation—and have ideas about how to do it, it can be a struggle to translate a high-level vision into reality. Many governments don’t prioritize, spread their efforts across multiple projects, and increasingly must function with tighter budgets. The underlying issue, however, is that many governments lack a structured, disciplined process for delivering breakthrough results.

We have developed a 10-step approach to help governments deliver impact that can greatly improve their citizens’ lives (exhibit). Over the last decade, we have worked with leaders in multiple developed and developing countries to test and refine this methodology, focusing on social, economic, and fiscal initiatives. For example, governments have successfully applied this approach to create jobs, improve educational outcomes, and improve tax collection—projects that generated results at scale, and within months or years, rather than decades. Equally important, governments have been able to sustain improvements.

The delivery challenge

This approach could help governments to:

  • Move from high-level plans to specific priorities underpinned by facts, have committed funding, and with owners mobilized for action
  • Set up systems and build capabilities within the government to implement projects, track outcomes, and achieve results
  • Drive implementation to completion with highly motivated officials and engaged staff

In one Asian country, this approach helped create more than 3 million jobs and increase the rate of private investment by more than 20 percent in 12 months after a decade of stagnation. In an African country, officials increased tax revenue by 14 percent in three months. In Europe, one country recorded a 20 percent improvement in surgery room utilization. In an Asian capital city, the program helped attract 10 million additional passengers to the subway system in two years. In another Asian country, an additional 1.5 million children were enrolled in school in 18 months.

This article describes each step in the approach. Although they are discussed sequentially, some steps can be performed in parallel.

The 10-step approach

1. Priorities and outcomes: The top issues that keep leaders up at night

Governments should prioritize a small number of areas (ideally three to six) where they want to achieve breakthrough results and sustained performance improvement and then concretely define the outcomes they want to achieve. While prioritization, by definition, involves difficult choices, it ultimately helps governments focus their attention and resources on the issues that matter most.

Some leaders may prefer to take a top-down approach to setting priorities and outcomes, based on their intuition and judgment. In other cases, leaders may pursue a more fact-based approach that analyzes current performance, takes into account the views of experts, the general public, and other stakeholders and involves a wider group of government leaders. Both approaches can work.

For each area, governments can measure progress by establishing metrics that focus on outcomes, rather than inputs. For example, governments interested in improving safety could measure the percent decrease in violent crime, not the number of new police officers hired. Metrics are most useful when they are specific and have a defined endpoint. For instance, education metrics could call for an improvement in literacy rates from 70 percent to 95 percent within four years, rather than a more general “improvement in reading scores.”

2. Labs: The people who can solve the problem are all right here

Governments can establish “labs” for each of the identified priorities. A lab is an intense problem-solving environment, co-locating 30 to 40 people to develop fresh ideas and translate high-level strategies into detailed implementation plans. These labs, usually lasting eight weeks, are supported by day-to-day work plans, intense facilitation, and visits from external topic experts and major stakeholders, such as top ministry officials. Every lab has five outputs: ambitious targets, detailed action plans, key stakeholder sign-off, budget estimates, and a dedicated team responsible for delivering impact.

One major goal is to develop step-by-step plans for priority initiatives, including realistic timelines and targets. In one lab conducted in an emerging market, the team determined the most optimal drinking-water supply strategy, pipe routing, and cost breakdown for 80,000 households. In another lab, all of the country’s 10,000 schools were ranked by scores in a public examination. A “school improvement toolkit” was developed and shared with the schools, with more targeted interventions for schools with the lowest scores. When a lab is finished the participants return to their departments and agencies; many then become accountable for delivery. This creates a strong link between planning and implementation.

3. Budget: A plan without a budget is a draft

Another important output from a delivery lab is a budget, since even the best laid plans will not succeed without funding. While the creation of a budget may seem straightforward, it actually requires careful coordination among stakeholders and a solid understanding of all fiscal issues. The four steps to achieve this include:

  • Collaborate and closely involve the finance ministry (or a similar authority) early and throughout this process
  • Develop a clear picture of both funding demand (detailed cost estimates) and supply (available government funds)
  • Involve external experts and use international benchmarks to challenge thinking so that estimates are not overstated
  • Where the budget is tight, shortfalls can be bridged in a number of ways, for example, reallocating existing funding to priority areas, improving tax collection, seeking private donor contributions, or collaborating with state-owned enterprises for co-investment in improvement initiatives

In one South Asian country, for example, a lab identified sufficient procurement savings to fund a two-year economic and social transformation program. Another country used an “impact per dollar of government spending” metric to allocate funding to the most effective initiatives, while the least effective ones were discontinued. Governments can also deliver more for less on capital programs by applying “design-to-value” principles. For example, the cost of elevators for a new underground train system was reduced by more than 50 percent by replacing the original glass design with a more conventional specification, after a survey of customers showed them to be indifferent to the elevator design.

4. Public feedback: The days of ‘government knows best’ are over

Before finalizing their delivery plans, governments can engage the public to build support for new initiatives and strengthen their proposed solutions. This not only increases awareness of the government plans but also promotes accountability within the public sector.

Government interactions with citizens can occur through multiple channels, including traditional news outlets, social media, online polls, and public meetings. For example, one government designed and facilitated “open days” attended by more than 20,000 members of the public, private sector representatives, and media to gather feedback on the government’s delivery plans. During these sessions, officials presented plans and participants had the opportunity to ask questions and provide input.

5. Roadmap: If it’s not on paper, it doesn’t exist

Governments should create and publish a roadmap that outlines all targets and implementation plans. By articulating a clear agenda with a detailed program of action, they will raise public awareness, while simultaneously increasing the commitment and accountability of the agencies and departments that must deliver the results.

One emerging-market government created a comprehensive public roadmap that described the improvement program. The roadmap, which was endorsed by the highest levels of leadership, created collective pressure for all ministers to perform.

6. Creating a delivery unit: The engine room of implementation

Delivery units focus on implementation of results for a government’s highest priority areas. These units partner with line ministries to rigorously track performance, identify and resolve bottlenecks early, and course-correct as needed. They can usually resolve many obstacles that may hold back delivery, so that the senior officials can focus on addressing only the most important challenges.

Among other benefits, delivery units enable fast decision-making because they cut through government bureaucracy. They also enhance transparency throughout implementation by consolidating accurate and timely data and communicating outcomes.

Governments in many countries have created these units to drive implementation. Some have succeeded, while many have not.

Experience suggests that the units’ success is often determined by six characteristics:

  • An outstanding leader with a track record of delivering results. Heads of successful delivery units have come from both the public and private sector, but all have a proven track record of delivering outcomes. They understand how government works, have direct access to the senior government leader backing the program, and a peer-like relationship with ministers.
  • Talented staff from across the private and public sectors. Delivery unit staff can come from the public or private sector. What matters most is that they are talented. They do not necessarily need deep subject-matter expertise. What matters more is that they are effective problem solvers, communicators, and influencers who can work collaboratively with departments and agencies to make delivery happen.
  • Firm, unchanging mandate and scope. Delivery units must be 100 percent-focused on top priorities and need a clear and unwavering mandate from the highest levels of government. Officials must resist the temptation to expand the scope of a successful delivery unit. One unit in Europe initially focused on only four government departments. After a successful start its mandate was expanded to almost 20 departments, covering every part of the government agenda. After a year, officials understood that they had overreached and the mandate was revised to the original four departments.
  • Influence using soft power. Delivery units don’t allocate resources, don’t regulate, and can use the authority of the government leader sparingly. Therefore they need to rely on soft power to have impact. This means building trust with key stakeholders. The head of a successful delivery unit negotiates win-win deals with ministries and senior civil servants—committing to helping delivering results in return for support from the bureaucracy on those priorities.
  • Problem solve, don’t just monitor. Delivery units should problem-solve with discipline and intensity. In one country, the responsible minister chaired two-hour performance reviews with senior officials from across relevant agencies every two weeks to resolve bottlenecks and support cross-department coordination.
  • Celebrate the success of those accountable. The delivery unit supports the rest of government to succeed and deliver. They should ensure all the credit for success goes to the front line and accountable agencies. After all, that is where delivery really happens.

7. Performance management: If it doesn’t get measured, it doesn’t get done

A focus on performance—not unlike a Fortune 100 company—through individual accountability for outcomes and performance dialogues supported by robust data is critical to obtaining results.

Accountability for outcomes should be assigned to individuals, who should then be involved in intensive, regular performance dialogues focused on solving problems, rather than just monitoring. Only the most critical or toughest challenges should be escalated to the most senior leader, whose involvement is crucial to manage performance and support the delivery. This should require only four to six hours per month of the leader’s time.

In one country, a lead minister was accountable for each of the six priorities in its transformation program, even though many of the priorities were cross-ministerial challenges. In another country, a national leader went beyond the performance review of the priority initiatives to hold biannual reviews with each minister responsible for these initiatives. After each 30-minute meeting, the leader issued a one- to two-page feedback memo and a 1-to-10 score for each minister’s performance.

8. Capability building: Teach them how to fish

Successful delivery programs catalyze a change in the government’s underlying capacity and capability to deliver so results are not just achieved, but sustained. Developing people—from the leadership to the public servants at the front line—at every stage of the program, from design to implementation is important for sustained delivery. The program should include training the government staff in core delivery skills (such as target setting, problem solving, communication) as well as building specific-sector knowledge in the priority areas (such as literacy programs in education), which can be applied during the program and beyond.

The best public-sector capability programs are grounded in adult learning principles. This means a field-and-forum approach, in which classroom instruction alternates with time at work to apply the concepts that have been learned. To ensure that efforts can be scaled beyond a single program, governments can develop a select subset of staff members, who will then be able to provide ongoing training, rather than relying on outside facilitators each time.

9. Communicating impact: If they don’t see it, they don’t believe it

Effective communication of delivery results promotes public support for additional reforms. Some guiding principles when communicating a breakthrough delivery program include:

  • Focus on achieved results, not just intentions. Citizens are more impressed with concrete achievements than aspirations—such as increased school enrollment rates or a reduction in low-performing schools—especially if governments have failed to deliver in the past. This fact-based communication can be combined with more emotionally centered approaches, such as interviews with citizens who benefited from the impact.
  • Use innovation communication vehicles. While traditional media continue to play an important role in outreach efforts, digital formats are increasingly being used by governments to reach more citizens and engage with them.
  • Ensure regular and credible communication. To keep the public’s attention and demonstrate their ongoing commitment, governments should regularly communicate progress. Some governments publish outcomes weekly or biannually in the national newspaper, while others put together an annual report. Even when governments deliver results, citizens may still be skeptical; it further helps to enhance the credibility of their reports through external validation or an international panel that can comment on the progress.

10. Institutionalizing delivery: Making breakthrough impact the norm

A successful delivery program is sustainable, that is, the philosophy of delivering results in a structured and systematic way that is embedded throughout the government.

There are a number of ways to ensure sustainability and embed this methodology:

  • Make target-setting and proactive problem-solving the norm
  • Roll out the performance management system across government, including to local levels, so that individual performance indicators are aligned with targets and priorities
  • Redesign the budget process so that funding allocation is linked to delivery priorities, and ideally links to outcomes
  • Ensure the delivery of outcomes becomes integrated into civil service evaluation

The 10-step approach has consistently delivered breakthrough impact in the highest priority areas for government. This impact has changed people’s lives through creating jobs, increasing incomes, reduced crime, faster emergency care, and cheaper electricity to their homes. More importantly, this approach has helped governments build capabilities and capacity to sustain lasting breakthrough results.

About the author(s)

Eoin Daly is a principal in McKinsey’s Kuala Lumpur office, where Seelan Singham is a director. Jens Riese is a director in the Munich office.

The authors would like to thank Martin Checinski, Emma Dudley, Aaron Flohrs, Vidhya Ganesan, Anushia Kandasamy, and Sathya Sriram for their contributions to this article.

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