Learning from the past: Slough, MinTech and experimental government

 
The little known 1960’s ‘Slough Experiment’ was an ambitious – but ultimately failed – attempt at experimental government writes Jon Agar, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at UCL. The plan was for a concentrated ‘industrial experiment’ in Slough. Civil servants and ministers had great hopes for ‘better business through computers, calculation and creative design’. Although it never took off, it teaches us some important lessons about contemporary attempts to test out policies. Warning us of the perils of trying to do too much a once, that politics disrupts, that governments can innovate and that we should learn from the past.
 
 
There’s lots of talk at the moment about making government more experimental. I’ve been digging into the history of the experimental state, and wondering what we can learn from the past. Here’s an example that shows the scale of ambition that existed in the past, but also, perhaps, a lesson about not attempting too much at once.

In February 1966, with barely controlled excitement, Ieuan Maddock, deputy controller (B) of the Ministry of Technology – MinTech – the monstrous ministry that was the vehicle for Wilson’s White Heat hopes and policies – pitched a new proposal.

Ieuan Maddock, a welsh miner’s son turned physicist, was, in the 1950s, a key figure in the British atomic bomb programme. His telemetry had monitored the most important post-war British experiment – the detonation of the first British bomb at Monte Bello islands. He was put in charge of the countdown. Which earned him the nickname the ‘Count of Monte Bello’. He later worked on preparations for the partial test ban treaty before joining MinTech. We must see him as someone familiar with the potential scale and impact of experiment, with connections to the atomic establishments.

Proposing a concentrated industrial experiment

The problem, said Maddock, was that MinTech projects currently underway would either have little discernible effect on the national economy within a few years or would be swamped by events. In short Labour’s ambitions were piecemeal, too small in scale or too scattered.
What was needed was an experiment.

This department, he said, ‘should launch a concentrated “industrial experiment” … an area which contains a wide variety of industrial activities should be selected to serve as a Microcosm of the Nation at large.’ Then throw everything modern, progressive or just plain technological at it. Install a huge computer in the area, ‘blitz the use of computers into industry’, ‘make it a test bed for the most advanced modern telecommunications techniques’, use modern machine tools and the very best in modern administrative machinery. Accompany with fulsome expert advice, and make a drive on technical education.

Where? Maddock’s 1966 plan was to launch Slough into the 1980s.

Why Slough?

It was a compact high density industrial complex, a large spread of medium and small firms (with outmoded equipment), good local education, communications and access, and ‘close to the three largest research and development establishments in the country’: Farnborough for aeronautics, Harwell for civil nuclear and Aldermaston, for nuclear weapons.

The government experts that would descend on Slough, preaching better business through computers, calculation and creative design would be organisation and methods (Treasury-based technophiles I discuss in my book, The Government Machine), operational research, and, funnily enough, nuclear weapons scientists, who had, at Aldermaston, a new Promotion of Computers in Industry scheme.

Slough small businessmen would learn speak in Fortran. People, and I quote ‘would tour the design offices … “computerising” as many jobs as could be found’. ‘We are dreaming up a so-called “Slough Experiment”, wrote an official in May 1966, ‘in which the Slough area would be exposed to every technological trick on the books of circumambient Ministry of Technology agencies’.

(Come, friendly circumambient Ministry of Technology agencies, rain on Slough.)

The minister was sold. The Treasury confided in. The prime minister was informed of the plan.

It didn’t happen.

The challenge of innovation: moving from idea to action

Although a feasibility study, paid for by the atomic weapons side of UKAEA – yes, small change from the atomic bomb programme would fund this utopian scheme – was completed by the consultants, critical voices gathered.

It was in the wrong location, it was a subsidy for the prosperous South East, the Atomic Energy Authority was the wrong agency.

By the time officials got back from their August holidays, the dream was dead.

‘The problem, as in all our affairs’, the permanent secretary summarised, ‘is how to turn these interesting ideas into action’.

Perhaps, said one critic, kicking the project when it was down, it shouldn’t be called an experiment at all.

Lessons from the Slough Experiment

If implemented, the Slough Experiment would have subjected a whole town to the full gamut of innovation, 1960s-style. But it failed to even start. Is there anything we can learn?

First, don’t try too many things at once. While the Slough Experiment didn’t fail because too much was tried, it would have been impossible to tell what, of all the interventions, worked. Good experiments need comparators, controls.

Second, normal politics will disrupt intentions. The Slough Experiment started off as visionary but ended because it upset interests.
Third, government can be innovative. The idea (of an experiment at all), and the innovations (computing, specific expertises) were largely grown in-house, successfully.

Finally: learn from the past. No-one knew of the fate that nearly befell Slough until an old file was opened up and read.

 

 

Jon Agar is Professor in Science and Technology Studies at UCL. Professor Agar writes on contemporary technologies (mobile phones, ID cards) and the history of modern science and technology. He is the author of Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (Polity Press 2012).
[email protected]

@jon_agar

 

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