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Opinion Trudeau’s ‘deliverology’ on the verge of becoming a punchline

Before this week, questions about "deliverology" were liable to be met with a shrug by many in and around the federal government. Few could explain what the results-oriented management approach Justin Trudeau promised – complete with the knighted British guru who pioneered it in Tony Blair's government meeting extensively with the Liberal cabinet – had amounted to.

Now, what was supposed to be a new way of lighting a fire under the federal bureaucracy is on the verge of becoming a punchline.

Blame the new "mandate tracker" launched online by the government on Tuesday. With blatantly abandoned promises ("balance the budget in 2019-20") reported as "under way with challenges" and extremely unspecific commitments ("create a housing strategy") billed as "under way on track," the Liberals' attempt to write their own report card seems to make a mockery of deliverology's premise: that achievable, data-driven goals are clearly communicated and progress toward them regularly reported in an unvarnished fashion.

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It's probably unfair to sound deliverology's death knell, based on one dubious public-relations exercise. The Liberals have put in considerable work behind the scenes to implement Sir Michael Barber's theories, including establishing a unit devoted to it in the Privy Council Office and officials tasked with it in each department; the setup took long enough that it's too early to be definitive about what they've achieved. And supposedly, the government will soon publicly release a more data-driven set of self-reporting.

But if you're looking to understand why even some of those more enthusiastic about deliverology in principle have grown skeptical about Mr. Trudeau's ability to put it into practice, what was released this week is instructive. There are huge differences with the one previous, seemingly more successful adoption of it in this country.

Mr. Trudeau gravitated toward deliverology largely because it was seen to have worked well during Dalton McGuinty's early years in office. Not coincidentally, Mr. Trudeau's top advisers served the former Ontario premier back then. But as they have essentially attempted a massive scale-up, they seem to have abandoned some core tenets that made it work provincially, similar to the way it had for Mr. Blair in Britain.

One of those is a relatively narrow focus. The provincial Liberals did not suddenly attempt to introduce a new way of delivering policies across the entire government. Instead, they focused squarely on health care and education, and specific aspects thereof – waiting times for medical procedures, graduation rates and student test scores. By contrast, the federal Liberals seem to have applied it to pretty much their whole election platform – or to 364 different priorities assigned in ministers' mandate letters and included in the new tracker, which may broaden it to the point of losing any meaning.

A second, related and probably even more important difference is specificity in desired outcomes. The idea, as applied previously, is to study available data to determine a reasonable "stretch target" – an objectively measurable, aspirational but attainable improvement over the status quo. That's then communicated within government and publicly, to produce both accountability and pressure to rapidly implement whatever policy changes are needed to achieve it. Regular reporting of progress toward the goals is supposed to help quickly identify necessary changes along the way.

A few of Mr. Trudeau's stated ambitions – clean drinking water for First Nations communities is an obvious example – have that measurability component or could easily be made to do so. But for the most part, the goals are much more abstract. Mr. McGuinty set out to be judged on whether more children were finishing high school and more patients were getting treatment quickly, which was easily quantifiable. Mr. Trudeau set out to be judged on whether he is helping the middle class and those working to join it, which is not. Look at the mandate tracker and you will see many references to specific policies implemented and specific dollar amounts committed, but they're listed under the fulfilment of highly subjective goals.

There is a third difference, less within the Liberals' discretion but underlying some of the ways they have struggled to adapt from Ontario. Relative to provincial governments, Ottawa doesn't directly do that much to affect Canadians' day-to-day lives – not enough, at any rate, to be able to control outcomes.

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Unlike Mr. McGuinty, Mr. Trudeau can't often determine social-policy metrics and simply use levers at his disposal to achieve them: He has to count on partnerships with other levels of government, more directly involved in service delivery. And on foreign-policy matters that have been occupying much of this government's time – notably the fate of NAFTA, which may be the single most important issue of Mr. Trudeau's first mandate – this country's government is hostage to certain slightly unpredictable actors.

Possibly that makes deliverology a non-starter federally, and the Liberals were too quick to set expectations (and add government jobs) related to it. Or maybe, in the long run, they will prove to have landed on some modified version that works on its own terms.

This week, it felt like an earnest effort to do policy differently, reduced to a messaging effort that could have come from any previous government.

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