Enough alphabet soup, thanks

Does the UK really need yet another government department to champion technology?


RIP, DIUS. Bye bye BERR. The demise of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform won’t have anyone in tears (except the person responsible for ordering departmental stationery) because we hardly had time to get to know what their acronyms stood for, let alone their exact functions.

At least their successor, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS), sounds like a more coherent proposition and benefits hugely from not having the phrase ‘regulatory reform’ in its name. The creation of a ‘super-department’ headed by Lord Mandelson with responsibility for business, skills and higher education policy seems sensible enough, especially as it brings the key area of skills provision closer to the commercial heart of government.

Some people even argue that, love him or loathe him, Mandelson is the man who’s running the country in all but name, in which case engineering and technology may benefit from having the biggest beast in the Westminster jungle as its protector.

The trouble is, the endless Whitehall merry-go-round of morphing departments, shifting ministerial responsibilities and rallying cries to move forward to a brighter future can be a double-edged sword. They can look like decisive action to address the issues facing the economy and the nation, or they can look like fiddling while Rome burns.

The mission statements to emerge from DBIS have a familiar ring: ‘fostering innovation’; ‘placing the needs of business at the heart of government’; ‘giving people the skills they need to succeed’. All the right messages, but then again the old structure was supposed to deliver all that (unless we missed the bit that said ‘we didn’t give a monkey’s about innovation before, but now we’re on the case’).

To our mind, the reaction of manufacturers’ body EEF struck about the right note. It welcomed the fact that amid the political chaos engulfing the government (our words, not theirs), at least Mandelson and chancellor Alistair Darling were sticking around to provide some continuity. EEF also questioned, however, whether this was really the time to start ‘re-inventing the wheel’ at the top of government when the focus of everyone’s efforts might be better elsewhere. It’s rare for a press statement to exude a note of weary resignation (‘Did you really have to do all this now? Haven’t we all got enough to worry about?’) but this one managed it.

For its part, The Engineer can only plead that whoever has the reins after the next general election doesn’t feel the need to reshuffle the furniture of Westminster quite as much. A period of continuity would be much appreciated.

Andrew Lee, Editor