How Justin Trudeau plans to deliver on 'deliverology'

Shortly before the House of Commons adjourned for the summer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided which of the government's priorities would receive his special attention — four commitments on which he hopes to deliver results.

PM a devotee of Michael Barber's result-oriented management theories

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has listened to the advice of political consultant Michael Barber, right, who counsels governments in the ways of 'deliverology.' (Brendan McDermid/Reuters, CBC)

Shortly before the House of Commons adjourned for the summer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided which of the government's priorities would receive his special attention — four commitments on which he hopes to deliver results.

"We think they're the four most important things in the country," says a senior government official.

And now, every two weeks, as this government goes about trying to make something of itself, there will be "stocktakes."

From early on, Trudeau's government, laden with myriad promises, has been taking guidance from the teachings of Michael Barber, a British political adviser whose theories of result-oriented management have come to be known as "deliverology." 

Barber, who has attended each of the cabinet's three retreats and made at least one visit to Ottawa, preaches establishing "delivery units," setting priorities, measuring outcomes and methodically reviewing progress — a process that, ideally, drives a government to fulfil its commitments and produces meaningful results for the public. 

The prime minister's priorities are styled as "growing the middle class," "improved relationships with, and outcomes for, Indigenous peoples," "stronger diversity" and "international engagement that makes a difference in the world" (the last of these seems to focus generally on international priorities).

"We think, in short, that's our mandate, that's what we got elected to do," says the government official. "And it's all interrelated."

'Stocktakes' to fulfil a mandate

The plan is that every two weeks the prime minister, relevant ministers, their senior advisers and Matthew Mendelsohn, the former deputy minister in Ontario who has been charged with overseeing the government's "results and delivery" efforts, will meet to discuss one of these priorities — how policy is being implemented and what results are being achieved.

Initial meetings on three of the priorities were held in June and the "stocktakes" — as Barber terms them — will resume in September. The thinking goes that knowing the prime minister is paying attention to the file will motivate others to ensure progress is made.

There is a caution that results can take time to achieve. So winning the next election might come in handy.

Data and metrics will figure in. At a high level, there are numbers like median income, poverty rates or foreign direct investment. More granular are measures like education outcomes for Indigenous peoples or economic and settlement data for new immigrants.

Can metrics be linked directly to federal programs? Can the right data be tabulated? What sorts of goals are set? And how much of the data will be publicly released and touted?

Asked in May about how his government was getting on with Barber's ideas, Trudeau said thought was still being given to how results should be quantified. 

"How we actually figure out whether what we're doing is having a positive impact on the lives of Canadians isn't something that governments have spent a tremendous amount of time worrying about in the past," Trudeau said in May 

"A lot of energy is placed on announcements — oh, we're investing $20 million in this project. And the follow-up a year later or two years later — to say, well, X number of people have had their lives affected positively by that investment — isn't always part of the operations or philosophies of government."

The slogan around the Prime Minister's Office has apparently become "Outcomes, Not Activities."

Michael Barber has joined the Trudeau cabinet at all three of its retreats.

A strategic prime ministership

Deliverology is not immune to questions and doubts about its application. And the basics of deliverology are not entirely without precedent.

Nearly 30 years ago, Tom Axworthy, formerly principal secretary to Pierre Trudeau, described the need to pursue a "strategic prime ministership."

"In a four-year term, a prime minister has the time to concentrate extensively on four or five issues at most," he wrote.

In Pierre Trudeau's fourth and final term, from 1980 to 1984, there were four: constitutional reform, the national energy program, anti-inflation policy and an international peace initiative. (At least the first of those produced a legacy-defining success.) 

Twenty years later, Stephen Harper came to office with five priorities: cut the GST, implement the universal child care benefit, pass new sentencing laws, establish new rules for ethics in government and work with the provinces to reduce wait times for health care services. (At least the first four of those were implemented.)

Where his predecessor's agenda was exceedingly practical, Trudeau's is obviously broader. But, in broad strokes, his list also hints at desired results, not simply actions.

Previous governments have monitored their own progress towards priorities and goals, though perhaps not with the same rigour and emphasis. Governments do gather data, but maybe this one will find new measures or make different use of the numbers to guide themselves and the public service.

Every government department also already releases an annual performance report. But there are complaints the public data is often insufficient or inconsistent.

The government is planning to reform both those reports and the system through which the government asks MPs to approve spending. The memorandums that ministers must send to cabinet for new initiatives are also being redesigned to reflect the government's interest in results.

Deliverology is also being used by individual ministers to guide the work of their departments. (It is also noted that the prime minister will still be involved with other files — climate change, for instance.)

The potential upside of deliverology

The Liberals no doubt stand to benefit politically if they can both fulfil their platform commitments and brag about what good has resulted from those policies (if GDP and job growth is tepid, they might need all the other positive metrics they can muster). They might even benefit for now from seeming to be taking it all very seriously.

And, as progressives, they likely should have great interest in demonstrating the federal government is capable of keeping its promises and accomplishing good things.

Most ideally, this might spill into the public realm in a way that elevates data and evidence in the debate. As Trudeau suggested in the spring, the political discussion is generally about inputs and actions, not outcomes

But, as with the government's policies, the results of this management theory remain to be seen. Are the Liberals designing a better way of doing things or merely a slightly different way of doing things? 

It is at least now a piece of the story of this government. And to all else Trudeau is committed to, he has now added the task of delivering on deliverology.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.