A desperate search for meaning

Not content with its role as chief ‘persuader’, the DTI is taking an
ever-closer interest in areas it has little control over

It has been a feature of modern secretaries of state for trade and industry
that they have all had a hobbyhorse. For Michael Heseltine it was his ‘bonfire
of regulations’, Margaret Beckett got lumbered with ‘fairness at work’, while
Stephen Byers mounted a populist charge against ‘rip-off Britain’.

What will be Patricia Hewitt’s talismanic issue? Equality maybe? On her many
impressive media performances, equality and diversity seem to be the area about
which she is most passionate (the second half of her title is ‘minister for
women and equality’). Or productivity? Since November 2001, a series of
announcements and position papers have sought to reassure a carping business
lobby that every civil servant in the department lives, breathes and dreams
productivity and competitiveness. And Michael Porter, the owlish Harvard guru,
has also been called in for his diagnosis of the problem.

Perhaps more than other cabinet ministers, DTI secretaries of state need to
have a theme, because their role is substantially a rhetorical one.

A second feature of the modern DTI is that, compared with, say, the Home
Office, or the Department for Education and Skills, the areas of policy it has
direct control over are few.

The DfES, for instance, can do things with the education system as decisions
taken in Whitehall eventually creep out into the classrooms. The DTI,
meanwhile, is principally about wielding influence. That is why all DTI
publications come speckled with words such as ‘encourage’, ‘promote’, ‘support’
and ‘enable’. Through its influence, regulatory exertions and funding, it is
concerned with the atmosphere in which national economic life is played out.

The DTI’s new strategy document, Prosperity for All, is something of a case
study in suggestive atmospherics, when direct power is absent. In it, the
department says it has five "strategic priorities": transferring
knowledge so that business can exploit new ideas; maximising potential in the
workplace; extending competitive markets; strengthening regional economies; and
forging closer partnerships with significant economic players. In only one of
these areas – extending competitive markets – can it actually ‘do’ anything.

Not having many levers to press means its plans are necessarily hazy. Take
the DTI’s ambitions for the workplace. Talk of ‘maximising potential’ is the
kind of unlovely language HR professionals like to deploy. But the difference
is that HR departments usually have some control over skills development. The
DTI, of course, has none. All it does is ‘co-sponsor’ Sector Skills Councils
and ‘work with’ the DfES.

Yet it is not just that the DTI wants to improve the supply of skills – the
subject of an endless stream of government initiatives. The DTI believes too
many businesses are caught in a trap of low-skill and low-value jobs, which is
unsustainable in the face of global competition. So it wants to boost demand
for what we might call higher-end skills, reaching up into the realms of
leadership development.

"We want to raise skill levels to produce high-value jobs in
high-performance workplaces, where people can realise their full potential
while maintaining a healthy work-life balance," the document chirrups. The
department will judge itself successful if there is an increase in the number
of firms using "management techniques that foster high-performance

There is, of course, an intricate literature on what ‘high-performance
management practices’ might include: whether they are engines of growth in
themselves, merely enablers of growth, or whether their impact depends on the
context in which they are introduced and the personality of the individuals
that introduce them.

Alas, the DTI does not share its thoughts on such questions. The thing to
note is that the department has great faith in the powers of persuasion. By
banging the drum for HR management, it hopes employers will take up the
groundbeat, thereby helping productivity to rise. If it doesn’t work, the next
step might be state-sanctioned league tables for the uptake of management

The document’s fascination with areas where the Government has little power
is matched by its utter disinterest in areas where the Government has massive
power. Employment relations merits barely a mention. Most people, and certainly
most HR people, know the DTI has something to do with relationships at work,
unions, the balance of rights between worker and boss – remember those 17-odd
employment-related Acts of Parliament since 1997? Instead, like an embarrassing
relative, employment has been hushed up and ushered into a corner, far away from
the gleaming five strategic priorities.

In the structure of the DTI, employment relations comes under the Fair
Markets Group, along with things such as consumer policy. So, peculiarly, in
the one critical and contentious field of policy where the DTI can make a huge
difference to the quality of working life, the department seems to want to turn
a blind eye.

This might be a shame were it not for the fact that Prosperity for All is
only a piece of paper. It is a useful prop for the pragmatic rhetorician, an
atmospheric mood-setter. For the real priorities, I suggest looking where the
DTI can really ‘do’ things (regulation, competition policy, governance) as
opposed to ‘say’ things (‘maximising potential’).

Like a paradigm in modern leadership techniques, the role of the secretary
of state for trade and industry is now mostly about persuasion and endorsement.
Such skills are valuable. But they will never assume the importance of raw

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