February saw the publication of a joint report by Tony Blair and William Hague, advocating nothing less than a “fundamental reshaping of the state”. “A New National Purpose” seeks to provide a blueprint for Britain in a “new age of invention and innovation”.
The recommendations are a strange mixture of the breathtakingly ambitious (‘a reorganisation at the centre of government’) and the apparently mundane (‘incentivising pensions consolidation’) – all aiming to create a Britain which “can innovate rather than stagnate in the face of increasing technological change’.
The report’s brief reviews of emerging technologies are exemplary – well-researched, referenced and, at least for a short while, up to date. Artificial intelligence, biotech, climate tech are all covered – the “international standing” paragraph of each identifies Britain’s place in the wider scientific ecosystem.
It is, irritatingly, in the document’s main recommendation – the comprehensive rewiring of the state – that it is least convincing. Mostly, this is because the whole project can be summarised as “the future is tech and government must be set up for it”. Improving the quality of management, speeding up funding, anticipate better and micromanage less, set up delivery units – these do not feel like the fundamental rewiring that the identified aim seems to promise.
Partly, that’s because the report has been written by people with profound and thoughtful long-term engagement with the state itself. No-one could argue that Mr Blair or Mr Hague lack experience of government. Both have impressive, some would say intimidating, intellects. And so both want to fix things, especially those that frustrated them in their respective roles. I suspect that is why the report has such a collection of macro- and micro-recommendations. Particularly striking is the sheer number of recommendations around un-sticking processes, borne out of a clear frustration with both speed and focus of delivery. As they say, “Devising and delivering a complex, inter-departmental science and technology agenda requires bringing science and technology to the very heart of the British state.”
So much, so very obvious. The very welcome creation of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology hopefully goes a long way to provide that – particularly if organisations like the Government Office for Science can bring the skills they showed in the coronavirus pandemic to address other, equally pressing, science and technology issues. An increased tolerance of risk, and a preparedness to spend for future results rather than for immediate gain, would certainly help, and the recommendation to create an Advanced Procurement Agency is intriguing.
Some will challenge their desire to “treat data as a competitive asset”, especially when that data comes from the NHS; and the desire to “embed AI across public services” is perhaps too soon for a technology which is, as we have seen from ChatGPT, prone to hallucinating facts.
Perhaps the most significant section, though, is the recommendation to “educate, train and retrain talent to power the science revolution”. Nothing will happen unless the people are there to make it happen, and it is unfortunate that the “fundamentally change the state” argument has been allowed to outshine this need to ‘train and retrain’ in the public reporting of the report. The UK has suffered badly in the skills race – simply compare the number of engineers and computer scientists being trained here per capita with China or India – and concrete, solid, sustained action to regain our position is vital.
SAMI’s work on the future of skills over the last few years has encompassed various industries and regions in the UK. We have consistently found a mismatch between ambition and reality – there are simply not enough people with the right skills to get to the futures that people say they want. The corollary, of course, is that with the current skill distribution, we will get to where we don’t want to be.
“A New National Purpose” is interesting from the futures perspective. It feels like the authors, and their team, have used at least three of our standard methodologies – backcasting, roadmapping, and futures wheels. Backcasting starts with where you want to be in the future and moves you back in time to the present, identifying the actions you need to take to get to the preferred future. Roadmapping gives you a path from the present to the future. And futures wheels allow you to identify second and third-order impacts of actions.
So the report gives us an ambition – and works back from that ambition to highlight actions. It identifies those actions in a structured development path. And it takes the basic steps, but also identifies those additional supportive second- and third-order actions that need to be taken to support them.
That may explain why the report ranges from broad to narrow, from whole-of-government changes to single policy recommendations covering individual agencies. Blair and Hague want not only to present an approach but want to include every step that would support that approach. That’s a brave thing to do in a society which increasingly finds it difficult to focus on many things at once, and perhaps it’s not a surprise that some of the more interesting recommendations get lost in the reporting.
Were the “new National Purpose” executed in its entirety, it would indeed fundamentally rewire the state. It would probably have at least some of the impact the authors anticipate. It would be a pity if the report were to be ignored. It identifies many of the issues we have seen in our practice, and provides actionable responses to them – if nothing else, it would be a useful “ideas mine” for future governments. Perhaps not the full rewiring the authors advocate – but incremental improvements would be a start.
Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
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