When Google restructured to become Alphabet in 2015, it created a larger engine for innovation. Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle to create a Department of Science could do the same for investment into the UK, writes Daniel Korski.
Renaming and re-organising government departments is the sort of thing that gets journalists, MPs and officials excited but few people outside of Westminster care about. Even worse, voters often feel it’s displacement activity for policies and the change they hope for in their lives. Cue the tired metaphor of the deck chairs on the Titanic.
But the reality is that having the right organisational setup is critical for success in the private and public sector. Google reorganised itself a few years ago to ensure it continued to invest in innovation. Facebook famously changed its name to Meta to emphasise its new mission. In the private sector, change is constant and the options for an organisational uplift are manifold – including mergers, acquisitions, selling units.
In Whitehall, the options to change are more limited. A department can’t just sell off a unit even if its purpose has been superseded or greater synergies could be ensured elsewhere. That’s why top-level changes like the ones Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has instituted this week are incredibly important – especially for delivery.
Who now doubts that creating the Ministry of Defence in the 1960s was a good idea? Or that closing the Department for Energy a few years ago was a bad one? Going further, as my former No10 colleague Rachel Wolf has argued, delivery is what matters and to do so governments needs the right organisational tools – like the vaccine taskforce during the pandemic
Of all the changes announced yesterday, the creation of a stand-alone Department for Science, Innovation and Technology is particularly astute.
This future agenda has for a long time benefited from a lot of high-flying rhetoric but little joined up working. While Prime Ministers and ministers have long talked about the value of supporting British innovation, they have been underserved by the tools available to affect change. Pots of innovation-focused money are scattered across Whitehall, support for technology had to vie with museums for a Cabinet minister’s attention; it took No10 to push for the creation of ARIA, the new innovation agency.
As the cross-party Commission for Smart Government argued, the UK should be better at “marshalling” innovation programmes across government and follow the example of countries like South Korea and Taiwan to create the sort of dedicated ministry that’s now being set up. Perhaps most importantly, in the never-ending negotiations with the Treasury for more innovation funding, the fact that nobody in the Cabinet owned a single science “account” will have undermined the case. Power in Whitehall comes in part from focus.
A “Ministry of the Future” doesn’t just offer the chance to operate more coherently and bring together the government’s innovation support, it is the opportunity to build a cadre of officials better versed in technology, data and science. Over the last few years, and especially during the pandemic years, this fluency has been sorely lacking.
Officials are often the brightest of their generation but they are chosen, trained and promoted in a way that doesn’t ensure the civil service has the necessary expertise. A department that can focus on, attract and develop technically-savvy talent can provide the UK a real advantage.
Changing organisations inevitably comes with challenges. Departments like businesses can become too inward focused. Plaques and jostling for jobs can substitute for delivery. It will be critical that the Prime Minister and Michelle Donelan, the new Science Secretary, lead the outward focus – backing the innovations being developed in the UK across garages, universities, startups, scale ups and larger corporates.
Numerous economic models have shown the serious challenges the UK is facing to its underlying economy. As a nation we aren’t productive enough, we aren’t skilled enough, and we aren’t able to harness opportunities across the country or export as much as we should. Ensuring that innovators have the talent, public R&D support, private investment and access to markets is critical to getting the country on a different economic trajectory. It is therefore crucial not just for the Conservative Party’s electoral success but the country’s overall success. Yesterday’s Whitehall reshuffle is an exciting step in the right direction.