Public-Private Tensions in the UK

UK Business and Government Tensions: Towards a More Functional Relationship

The handwringing over sleaze accusations and the fuss over Peppa Pig referenced as an example of a major business success are just two recent manifestations to what I’ve sensed to be a long-term, awkward, and dysfunctional relationship between business and government in the UK. The public and private sectors do not seem capable of developing a productive relationship, even though a good relationship seems obviously valuable for advancing the national economy and its social benefits.  

You can dismiss my views since I am an academic and an American, and the US certainly has its examples of dysfunctional relations between public and private sectors, such as during the Trump administration. But as an American academic who has spent many years in the UK, the cultural differences seem remarkable.

Peppa Pig

Comparatively speaking, the UK has a more skeptical if not anti-business culture in relation to the US. For example, in the US, business leaders are often very promising candidates for office. They are viewed as people who have done real work, had to hire and fire people, get things done, and who are capable of ‘running government more like a business’, meaning more efficiently.  In the UK, business is more often viewed as relatively wasteful, inefficient, more expensive, and even a corrupting influence on government.

Many of the best graduates from US educational institutions go into high paying jobs in business and industry. Many of the best graduates from the top UK educational institutions go into one or another area of public service, such as a career politician. I’m not sure if the UK even has a degree equivalent in stature to the Harvard MBA, for example.

Maybe I am wrong, but if this is a generally valid comparison, at least something should be done by business schools in the UK, even if no one else takes responsibility for mending this relationship. Productive and positive relations between the public and private sectors must be of benefit to all. In the past, this might have been a role played to some degree by the gentlemen’s or private members’ clubs in London, but something more needs to be done.

Might this problem be a great theme for a seminar series, if not a research project or research program at a major business school? Perhaps some joint programme supported by the UK’s Economic and Social Research (ESRC) council could fund illuminating research in this area. If this is being done or has already been done, then it is under-achieving and needs to be ratcheted up or revisited. If not, I think it would be a valuable contribution.  

Thank you again, Lord Ashdown

Lord Ashdown died on 22 December 2018 at 77 years of age, and was buried in Somerset this week on 10 January 2019. After serving as a Royal Marine, and serving years as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and an MP, his life has been celebrated by many.

It may seem small, but I can’t help but remember Paddy Ashdown for helping me and my colleagues by taking the time to speak at the last international conference of the Programme on Information & Communication Technologies (PICT) in 1995. The conference was entitled ‘The Social and Economic Implications of Information and Communication Technologies’, and was held at The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London, from 10-12 May 1995.

The Rt. Hon Paddy Ashdown agreed to do the keynote of the conference, and he was joined by other parliamentarians, including John Battle, Kenneth Baker, Richard Caborn, Chris Smith, Ian Taylor and Sir Kenneth Warren. The event, and Paddy Ashdown’s keynote, was a capstone to one of the first social science research programmes focused on information and communication technologies, such as the Internet. It was sustained by two phases of research grants from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). I was national director of this programme during its last years, following earlier directors, Bill Melody and Nicky Gardner. It gave me the opportunity to work with such great colleagues as Martin Cave, Richard Collins, Rod Coombs, Jane (Yellowtrees) Douglas, David Edge, Wendy Faulkner, James Fleck, the late Chris Freeman, Nick Garnham, Andrew Gillespie, John Goddard, Leslie Haddon, Christine Hine, David Knights, Sonia Livingstone, Stuart Macdonald, Robin Mansell, Ian Miles, Geoff Mulgan, Hugh Willmott, Vince Porter, Paul Quintas, Kevin Robins, the late Roger Silverstone, Colin Sparks, John Taylor, Juliet Webster, Robin Williams, Steve Woolgar, and many many others.

PICT was a successful research programme that paved the way for a series of research programmes to follow on its heels and together make an incredible difference in the way people in the UK and worldwide think about the societal implications of the Internet and related information and communication technologies. I’m not sure if those who contribute their time and efforts to supporting academic research, as Paddy Ashdown did, realise how their contributions make a difference and are remembered. So thank you again, Lord Ashdown, for seeing the significance of what we were doing and supporting it with your presence – well before the significance of the new technologies were widely recognised.

Lord Paddy Ashdown

Ways of Being in the Digital Age: A New ESRC Project

Delighted to be on the Advisory Board of a new ESRC Project, entitled ‘Ways of Being in a Digital Age: A Systematic Review’.

The project is led by the Institute of Cultural Capital at the University of Liverpool in collaboration with 17 other partner Universities and organizations. It is a scoping review designed to inform potential future ESRC initiatives in this area.

This scoping review will focus on how digital technology mediates our lives, and of the way technological and social change co-evolve and impact on each other. The project will undertake: a Delphi review of expert opinion; a systematic literature review; and an overall synthesis to identify gaps in current research. The project will also run a programme of events to build and extend networks among the academic community, other stakeholders and potential funding partners. The project pulls together an impressive interdisciplinary research team with experience in running digital projects with partners across the social sciences, arts and humanities, engineering, physical sciences and health, representing 16 universities from the UK, EU, USA and Singapore. The core team of co-investigators from eight UK universities will provide expertise across a range of social science, arts, engineering and science backgrounds. The team also includes a broader international steering group, of which I am a member.  th-1

Its initial plans are to focus on seven domains:

  1. Citizenship and politics
  2. Communities and identities
  3. Communication and relationships
  4. Health and wellbeing
  5. Economy and sustainability
  6. Data and representation
  7. Governance and securityth

For each domain the project will undertake:

  • A Delphi panel review of international experts’ opinions on the state of the art in digital facing social research.
  • A ‘concept mapping’ of identified literature using digital humanities tools
  • A systematic review of a sample of the literature
  • Engagement events with non-academic stakeholders from the public and private sectors
  • An assessment of the theory and methods applied in each domain

The project will also conduct a feedback questionnaire on the findings, run workshops throughout, and hold sessions at a number of international conferences. The project will conclude with a symposium to feedback the findings and to discuss the future of digital research in the social sciences.

More details on the project are available online at: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/files/funding/funding-opportunities/ways-of-being-in-a-digital-age-scoping-review-specification/  But as time passes, just search for Ways of Being in the Digital Age, as we do.