Delivery units not inherently effective, says UK think-tank IfG

27 Apr 17

Small, highly skilled teams lauded by governments globally as a way to deliver policy priorities are not inherently effective, the Institute for Government has cautioned.


Delivery units, which were first deployed in the UK under prime minister Tony Blair in 2001, have since been picked up by governments around the world as an innovative and evidence-based way to achieve better results on key policies.

Today, the IfG said the trend towards delivery units shows no sign of letting up. Over half of the 31 reported by the institute to be in existence today were formed in just the last two years, supporting governments in some 25 countries across Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and Asia.

But, the IfG warned, while their successes have been loudly celebrated, numerous delivery units have also quietly failed, stagnated or been axed altogether.

“Delivery units are now a remarkably popular government innovation with genuinely global appeal,” said Jen Gold, author of the IfG’s report. “But it is important to realise that there is a growing list of countries where they haven’t lived up to their political leaders’ expectations.”

While dozens of delivery units have been opened since 2014, eight have also been closed, including in Australia, Tanzania, Chile and Wales.

In some cases, delivery units were closed swiftly after a government transition that saw their political backers ousted. In others, the units’ demise was slow and painful as they failed to live up to expectations, political support and resources evaporated and key staff members left.

Elsewhere, the IfG said numerous units continue to “limp on without the momentum and political backing they once enjoyed”.

But, the report continued, as a model the delivery unit remains resilient. Some governments abolish units only to reinvent them shortly afterwards, and they enjoy strong backing from the international development sector, which the IfG said is responsible for much of their rapid uptake.

The IfG noted that observers have voiced concerns that the delivery unit model is being “packaged up and marketed” to governments without paying sufficient attention to local circumstances, or the development priorities of the leaders they are supposed to support.

Whether in developing countries or their richer counterparts, the IfG warned that weak or ineffective units represent a waste of money. To add, their “continued existence can cultivate a false sense of security that government projects are being properly monitored, sometimes with devastating results”, it said.

However, it continued, units should be given the ability to achieve their potential rather than be closed down. The report outlined a number of conditions for success.

Units with little access to their political sponsor, a poorly defined, overly broad or contradictory remit or a high staff turnover are likely to fail, according to the report.

It stressed that political backing for the unit needs to be “highly visible” and the unit’s physical location needs to be in close proximity to the sponsor, other relevant figures and the department.

The unit needs the right hiring strategy, which ensures a mix of the required expertise, the ability to keep staff in their posts, and avoid top-heavy organisational structures that can constrain daily operations.

“The head of a delivery unit can make it or break it,” the report added, “so political leaders need to appoint wisely.”

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