Blog Series – Breaking BEIS: Risks & Opportunities for Engineering Policy (1/4)
By laurent.liote.19, on 15 February 2023
This 4-part blog series covers the recent dismantling of the UK government’s department for Business, Energy and the Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and what it means for engineering policy. We take this opportunity to look at what we can learn from the creation and internal organisation of BEIS to reflect on how machinery of government changes affect engineering in and for policy. This blog series is written by final year PhD candidate Laurent Lioté, working on engineering advice for energy policy and part of STEaPP’s Engineering Policy Group.
February government reshuffle: plus ça change…
As of Tuesday 7th of February 2023, the UK’s Department for Energy, Business and the Industrial Strategy (BEIS) no longer exists… And as a researcher who has spent the last three years studying the ministry, this is important news! Rest assured the Prime Minister has not completely scrapped energy and business policy, BEIS has undergone what we call a ‘machinery of government change’ and its portfolio has been split between new and existing departments.
Before I launch into what the new ministerial organisation looks like and what the new remits are, let me say a quick word about what I got up to in the now defunct department. I am a final year PhD student, and my research has been focused on ethnographically studying engineering advice for policy at BEIS. Energy being an engineering demanding policy area, the ministry covering the topic seemed like a good site to investigate how engineering expertise is leveraged by the government. Through my research I have come to learn a lot about the history of the ministry and how its creation and internal organisation impacted its internal engineering capacity. This post and the next three in this series are therefore reflections on what we can learn from the more and less distant past to do ‘good’ engineering policy in the present.
So, back to the Prime Minister’s announcements. Last week BEIS portfolio was divided into:
- A new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, tasked with “securing the UK’s long-term energy supply, bringing down bills and halving inflation”
- A new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, who’s remit is to “drive innovation, improve public services and grow the economy”
- A combined Department for Business and Trade, in charge of “supporting UK business on home soil and abroad”
Now that might seem like a bold new direction for the UK government but to anyone who knows about the history of BEIS, this is actually more of a return to the roots. Indeed, BEIS was a merger of:
- The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and
- The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)
Going even one step further, both DECC and BIS were spun off BERR, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. But rather than drown you in acronyms, I’ve compiled it all in one neat diagram:
My point here, as you can see, is that this is all very cyclical. And given all those ministries have been focused in one way or another on energy and/or innovation, all those changes have had impacts on the government’s in-house engineering capacity in those policy fields.
This new reshuffle will have more than one policy professional say: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – but it’s not always the case, ministerial changes also provide windows of opportunity to change policy and institutional organisation. This is what I want to cover in the next three blogs by looking at BEIS and its history. How have machinery of government changes helped or hindered the development of engineering advice for policy? Is the current government’s focus on “growing the economy, reducing bills and halving inflation” going to be at odds with engineering advice? Is it finally time to push for engineering as an official ministerial remit or does science, innovation and technology cover it?
Find out in the next episodes of Breaking BEIS!