Sentinel agencies

21-03-18

Prior to the early to mid 90s, the UK had government agencies which acted for the public good. These included the Building Research Establishment (BRE), the Cement and Concrete Association, the Timber Research and Development Agency (TRADA), the Transport and Road Research Laboratory (TRRL), the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) and so on. These did work for companies, the government, farmers and anybody these bodies felt merited help.

These were subsequently privatised to make them self-funding and accord with the EU philosophy of private rather than public sector organisations. All work carried out by these bodies is now in the form of contracts, which the organisation has had to bid for. Any work done is therefore decided by others, be it commercial companies, government or other organisations.  In so doing, the public interest component of these organisations has been lost. If staff in these organisations see a national problem arising, they have no remit or funding to act.

An example of this public interest aspect in my own organisation (SAC) prior to commercialism, related to the problem of stacks of boxes in farm potato stores collapsing and endangering farm staff. I agitated with the potato industry for some form of test or standard for boxes, which eventually resulted in a British Standard being written and a requirement for all new boxes to be tested. Once we were privatised, initiatives like this effectively ceased.

The VW diesel emissions scandal exhibits the dangers with the now privatised bodies. Once suspicions of the cheating were discovered, no UK car emissions testers would undertake to show that cheating was going on, in case their main customers, the established car manufacturers, would cease to use their services in future. Testing to establish that cheating software was involved had to be carried out in Eastern Europe.

Government “car crashes”

In recent years several what could be termed government or institutional “car crashes” have occurred. These may have been foreseen but were not acted on. Examples are: –

  • Plastic packaging and its impact on the environment
  • Micro beads in beauty products entering rivers and seas
  • Cheating devices on VW diesel cars undergoing emissions testing
  • The ineffective “Green Deal” designed to encourage home energy efficiency refurbishment
  • The governments renewable heat incentive scheme encouraging excessive use of biomass heating
  • Unsafe flammable materials used in the Grenfell flats
  • Neonicotinoids pesticide impact on bee populations
  • The threat to our population of fast foods, sugar and large portion sizes, not fats as the food industry suggested

Creation of sentinel agencies

The sentinel agencies would have the duty of scanning their sector to anticipate problems that might arise. To keep to the EU principle of competitive tender, organisations would bid to be sentinel agencies for various sectors of business and society. Government would pay them to look after the public’s interest, particularly those relating to the environment. They must be free from self-interest aspects of business.  The organisations bidding to become sentinel agencies would have expertise in the areas that they were responsible for, but they could not be in manufacture or sales. They could be privatised agencies like BRE, TRRL, etc, universities or colleges, not-for-profit businesses or private consultancy companies.  Their presence would be well publicised so that any individual or organisation could tip them off should they have concerns of developing problems, such as suspecting cheating in VW engine testing. The contracts could be for 3 – 5 years, renewable provided that they perform their job.

Contribution of sentinel agencies to government policy

Sentinel agencies would play a major role in formulating government policies. While government has capable civil servants developing policy, they lack the engineers, physicists, chemists, environmentalists and people who actually make, build and sell things. They therefore rely on commercial companies to provide this expertise, but in so doing are subject to their self-interest, which often conflicts with the nation’s interest. Having staff from sentinel agencies on such committees will bring a balance back to government policy and provide an “honest broker” to government planning and legislation.