Books of the Year: Upfront with Blair and power presentation

It might be a bit nerdy. So fretted Tony Blair about the suggestion that Michael Barber, head of his Delivery Unit, give the press a PowerPoint presentation on the Government's progress towards its domestic policy targets. It was - but it was a success. Barber's avalanche of stats in July 2002 was an antidote to Blair's perceived spin.

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In his book Instruction to Deliver: Tony Blair, the public services and the challenge of achieving targets, Barber says: 'It was agreed that I would present it in a low-key way.' It's hard to imagine him doing it any other way: Barber is a softly spoken, modest man.

His book is a defence of 'deliverology', the view that public services could be reformed only if they were set clear, public targets for which they would be accountable. Blair set up the Unit in 2001 to give Whitehall a kick up the backside. Barber says its role was to 'simplify, keep bringing people back to the fundamentals'.

The Unit's five killer questions would serve any manager well: 'What are you trying to do? How are you trying to do it? How do you know you are succeeding? If you're not succeeding, how will you change things? How can we help you?'

Centrally set targets were a blunt tool but in many areas did the job: waiting lists in the NHS tumbled, for example. But managers ended up playing games to hit targets rather than meeting the spirit of them. As an insight into the workings of government and the challenge of reforming big organisations, Barber's book is a landmark.

It was Alastair Campbell's idea to put Barber in front of the journalists. His own diaries give a more intimate flavour of life in Downing Street through The Blair Years. Even with the worst of the spats between Blair and Gordon Brown excised, the portrait is compelling - and frightening. Blair's high anxiety at key moments is in stark contrast to his external demeanour.

The book portrays two men at the centre of power, one of them a man of principle, integrity and consistency trying to hold the other - who is focused on the short-term, spin and appearance - to his promises. Guess which is which.

Campbell's departure left a huge hole in government. He was a force of nature, creating what Lynda Gratton would call a 'hot spot'. Author of Hot Spots: Why some companies buzz with energy and innovation - and others don't, Gratton believes these are what make firms thrive: teams of people given a clear purpose, injected with energy and working together rather than against one another. She suggests hiring people with a co-operative mindset rather than an overtly competitive one.

George Monbiot's book on climate change and the need for us all to alter our behaviour, Heat: How we can stop the planet burning, is brilliant: credible, courageous and compelling. I read the following sentence on a plane from Heathrow to Leeds: 'If you fly, you destroy other people's lives'.

The book was first published in 2006, but Monbiot added a preface for the 2007 edition that is worth the price of the book on its own: he eviscerates the overrated Stern report on climate change and opens with the chilling, and true, statement: 'Almost all of us have agreed that climate change, in Tony Blair's words, is the single most important issue that we face as a global community. We have also agreed to do nothing about it.'

Richard Reeves' John Stuart Mill: Victorian firebrand was published last month (Atlantic Books, £30).

RICHARD'S TOP FOUR
Instruction to Deliver: Tony Blair, the public services and the
challenge of achieving targets
Michael Barber
Politico's Publishing
£19.99

The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alastair Campbell diaries
Alastair Campbell
Hutchinson
£25

Hot Spots: Why some companies buzz with energy and innovation - and
others don't
Lynda Gratton
FT Prentice Hall
£20

Heat: How we can stop the planet burning
George Monbiot
Penguin
*£8.99

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