You might recall the letter that, almost exactly 10 years ago to the day, the then permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister circulated to all permanent secretaries – after Cabinet had approved that an agenda of “visible deliverables” had to be given top priority – ordering them to identify which of the said visible deliverables their ministry was responsible for. This, he explained, would enable him to “coordinate and monitor progress for regular reports to the Prime Minister on the basis of time frames to be established for each project”.
In the abstract, the idea of visible deliverables is good. It’s a useful management tool. Regular monitoring of a project’s state of completion requires whoever is responsible for it to periodically show something for the money put into the project by whoever is paying for it. This something must be tangible and quantifiable. If it is not the completed project itself, it must be a part of it. Obviously, if it is only a part it must be such as to convince whoever is paying for it that the project is nearer to completion than it was in the preceding period.
The use of management jargon is often an end in itself. It suggests that whoever is meant to be in control is in fact in control. The audience – and there is always a specific audience in the target sight – is meant to feel that, wow, these guys are cool, they know what they want and where they want to go, they are organised and not wasteful of time and money, they can be trusted with our money (whereby we are clients, investors or taxpayers).
When a Cabinet selects a number of high visibility projects with a view to delivery by a set date (generally to coincide with an election), it does so with the intention of impressing at least the more impressionable voters, most of whom will, anyway, tend to be the already converted.
When it reveals that it has actually called these projects “visible deliverables”, then it is trying to hit three birds with one stone. Apart from trying to impress the more gullible voters (first bird, easy), a Cabinet that tells you that a project is a “visible delivery” and then loudly instructs its top civil servants to report back regularly on the progress, is also targeting a second bird, the less credulous voters (less easy).
And then there is a third bird. The subtext is the following. Look, these are our marvellous projects but if they are not delivered, then don’t blame us. If someone screws up blame the inefficient civil servants. They failed us. Otherwise blame the environmentalists. Blame the opposition. Blame everybody except the government. Now flash forward to the summer of 2012. There is obviously a long list of “visible deliverables” that Lawrence Gonzi wants to be seen done before the election or, at least, be seen to be in an advanced state of completion.
Some are pharaonic, beyond our pocket, unnecessary and, at best, ill-timed (the new Parliament is a good example).
Some are necessary and welcome (the oncology centre).
Some are nice and meant to make you feel good even if you are livid about all the rest this government is not doing right or not doing at all. (Got a roundabout for landscaping, with floodlights under every tree and finely trimmed turf?).
Between now and the election, ministers and parliamentary secretaries will have cut enough lengths of ribbon to encircle the universe.
And, yet, the approach has changed from that of the summer of 2002. Journalists will not easily come across circulars for mandarins ordering these to report on the progress of visible deliverables to be completed by the election.
In a desperate attempt to distract us from the fact that this government is visibly non-delivering where it really matters, ministers and parliamentary secretaries will continue to jitterbug and jive breathlessly from one inauguration to the next but nobody on the government side will use the term “visible deliverables”.
It is as if Dr Gonzi has decided to preach exclusively to the already converted. Those don’t need to be impressed with management terminology. As for the less gullible, talk of “visible deliverables” may make them even more sceptical than anyone with at least a gram or two of brain already is today.
Dr Gonzi has succumbed to the temptation to retreat into one’s fortress and to speak only to one’s own. It is a regressive tendency that the Labour Party suffered from in certain periods of its history but one that it has now overcome.
Perhaps it is only to be expected of a political party whose vision did not go beyond EU membership. Dr Gonzi became Prime Minister after we joined the EU. Unlike Eddie Fenech Adami, he had no long-term inspirational vision to propel him forward, especially after we adopted the euro. His politics has been a succession of uninspired short-term solutions to problems typical of a party that has been in power for far too long.
The problem with these solutions is that one often becomes a victim of whatever means one employs to reach one’s goals. Following Matthew 26:52, one could say that if you live by JPOs you stand a good chance of falling by a JPO.
Dr Vella blogs at http://watersbroken.wordpress.com .