We need a strategic approach to industry - but have we gone overboard? Where we used to have nothing, now we have a huge range of government and TSB initiatives with which the private sector must engage.
As I explained in my last post we now have a bewildering array of initiatives:
• Eleven sector strategies (plus a few that aren't actually strategies but sort of are like defence and space),
• seven catapults,
• eight technologies and
• fifteen knowledge transfer networks.
It has to be asked if either the public or private sector has the energy to engage with such an array and whether or not there is effective co-ordination as subject areas are selected for inclusion in these four separate activities.
The government need to move urgently to simplify and coordinate this bewildering range of activity - and to make sure it's complete and mutually reinforcing.
The real danger is that well meaning sector councils and an overarching industrial strategy policy body (or bodies) will drive forward mountains of paper but no real outputs that benefit companies and the economy. If bureaucracy is the only real winner, the whole process will have failed. And at present that is a real risk. The sheer complexity of current government industrial strategy activity cast real doubts on the ability of the machine to support its ambitions:
As sector strategies are developed, the concentration must be not on "announcables", but on "deliverables". Similarly a guiding principle must be to focus on actions that can achieve real change and not being tempted into doing too much and doing it superficially. Governments and minsters always crave headlines and those headlines are most temptingly created by launching new initiatives. It is a temptation that must be resisted.
An example can be found in the Information Economy Strategy which asserts an action "that will be considered" is "Exciting young people, and particularly girls, to pursue a career in ICT". This is not an action - it's an aspiration, worthy but still only words lacking any substance.
An effective industrial strategy, though, must endure over many years and see reasonably consistent application of its policy instruments, albeit amended to take account of changing circumstances. By definition a strategy must set a strategic direction. It must be both long term and flexible. And that is easier said than done.
Finally, a real worry is that with so much activity, all these strategies will simply degenerate into well-meaning words, reports, conferences and seminars of self-congratulation, in the best traditions of bureaucracy. Perhaps the single most effective way to achieve success in the pursuit of a government strategy is to give someone personal accountability.
Each sector strategy developed jointly by the government and industry should be headed by a sector champion who reports regularly to the Prime Minister and who accepts both credit and blame for success and failure respectively. There's nothing more powerful than a pair of feet held regularly to the Downing Street fire.