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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


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Blog Series – Breaking BEIS: Risks & Opportunities for Engineering Policy (2/4)

By laurent.liote.19, on 22 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.      

Machining government: barriers and opportunities for engineering

Picking up where we left off last week, this post will cover how machinery of government changes can help or hinder the development of engineering advice for policy. This post looks at how BEIS came to be to understand the potential impact of the most recent reshuffle.

If you recall the diagram from last week, the energy and innovation portfolios have been bounced around frequently. Now the challenge with this type of machinery of government changes is that they lead to increased staff turnover (which is already quite high ‘by default’) and decreased knowledge retention, in turn breaking-up policy continuity.

Turnover happens at a high political level when new ministers come in like last week, in 2016 with the creation of BEIS or 2008 when DECC (the Department for Energy and Climate Change) was established. A less visible turnover however happens at policy levels where policy and technical teams (ex: DECC then BEIS’ engineering and science advice teams) get moved around depending on the portfolio and remit of the new departments.

This can easily result in a break in policy continuity as the ministerial remits are different, key individuals might leave (and with them some institutional memory), policy and technical teams have to find their footing, and advisers have to be brought up to speed on new policy areas. This last point is particularly important for technical policy areas, like energy, as new individuals don’t always have the tacit knowledge linked to corporate memory that enables them to assess the reliability of evidence. The lack of policy continuity can quickly become an issue when it comes to long-term challenges and targets like climate change policy.

But machinery of government changes are not always barriers to technical advice, in fact they can provide an opportunity for positive change like bringing a bit of engineering capacity back in-house (I might be biased!). When DECC was created for instance, the newly appointed CSA was clear that DECC’s mission of combatting climate change could not be achieved without hiring more engineers and scientists. In this case, a machinery of government change – and individual will and policy vision – increased the government’s engineering capability.

And in the end this question of policy vision and ministerial mission might be the key. How much engineering is recognised at the core of the new departments’ mission will determine how much engineering advice will be sought, deployed and used.

Looking at the aims of the two new departments, the technical (“energy supply, drive innovation”) is mixed with more economic imperatives (“growth, bills and inflation”). This is fine, lowering bills and creating jobs is important, but it does bring up the question of how much influence engineering vs. economics will have in policy – or if they are compatible. And that’s what we’ll cover in the next episode, stay tuned!

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