New network helps policymakers tackle UK’s productivity challenge

Male and female engineers in reflective clothing discussing over machinery in car plant.

Research into the cause and effect of the UK’s productivity crisis is informing policy debates and strategy at the devolved, regional, and national levels.

The slowdown in UK productivity growth rates since 2008 is 1 of the most severe experienced anywhere in the industrialised world. The UK’s low productivity is a concern because productivity is fundamental to everyone’s prosperity and quality of life.

Since 2018 the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded Productivity Insights Network (PIN) has taken a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to tackling the UK’s weak productivity performance.

PIN research has provided game-changing insight into the scale and nature of the UK’s regional productivity imbalances.

Credit: Economic and Social Research Council

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About the research

PIN has taken a novel approach to productivity research, which includes:

  • addressing questions across multiple thematic, contextual and spatial scales
  • broadening the research focus beyond economics to include social, environmental, geographical, health-related, psychological, legal and governance issues, and by including public, private and third sector partners

At the national level, the network’s key contribution has been to reframe and change how policymakers think about productivity-related issues.

Lead investigator Professor Philip McCann says:

Our holistic ethos enabled us to change the whole tone of the productivity debate by opening it up to a much wider range of disciplines and approaches, and by really focusing on the geographical aspects of productivity, which are so central to the puzzle, particularly in the UK.

Differences in prosperity

PIN research has provided game-changing insight into the scale and nature of the UK’s regional productivity imbalances, setting them in the context of OECD-wide evidence (which identifies the UK as an outlier). Parts of the UK, such as London and the South East, perform well and show robust productivity figures, but elsewhere productivity levels are lagging. Prosperity therefore differs dramatically across the UK, and these differences are among the highest of any industrialised country.

Lord O’Neill, Vice Chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and former Commercial Secretary to the Treasury says:

The PIN deserves to be recognised for its broad and deep research about the number 1 long term structural challenge facing the UK.

Impacts of the research

The ESRC-funded PIN has informed policy debates and strategy at the devolved, regional, and national levels.

Reframing the productivity puzzle

The £2.3 million PIN brought evidence and new insight on the complexities of the UK’s productivity challenge to the attention of senior policy officials, civil servants and ministers in Whitehall and Westminster.

The work funded by PIN and affiliated research funded by the ESRC Rebuilding Macroeconomics programme informed the 2022 Levelling Up the United Kingdom White Paper. It advocated, for the first time in official government documents, an explicit reframing of the UK’s productivity and regional problems.

Mr Jagdeep Athwal, Head of Strategic Analysis, Cities and Local Growth Unit, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy says:

The PIN team has consistently provided expert advice to guide and inform the regional perspective of the productivity debate.

The PIN team played a key role in framing the narrative that UK regional productivity inequalities are very high by international standards, present a national productivity problem and require a comprehensive and wide-ranging policy response, an approach which the UK government’s 2022 ‘Levelling Up the United Kingdom’ White Paper went to great lengths to set out.

Shaping policies in devolved governments, business and the third sector

The PIN team has actively engaged with decision makers across the UK through, for example, seminars and one-to-one discussions with:

  • 12 devolved and central government departments
  • 10 local and city-region bodies
  • 9 third-sector organisations
  • 8 high-level non-governmental bodies
  • over 100 businesses

Among the devolved governments, PIN research has:

  • underpinned Northern Ireland’s 2021 ‘Vision for a 10x Economy’ strategy
  • highlighted new productivity perspectives to more than 60 Scottish Government officials through a series of 14 seminars
  • fed directly into the Welsh Government’s Economic Action Plan, Curriculum for Wales, and Employability and Skills Plan, and Post-COVID Renew and Reform Plan

Practical solutions to business productivity challenges

Through its 47 individual projects, PIN-funded researchers have provided solutions to real-world productivity-related issues within small and large organisations.

A PIN project into how to help rail workers return to work after mental-health related sickness absence led to a new toolkit designed to help employees return to, and stay in, productive work. This is 1 example of the 47 individual projects funded by the network.

The Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) has adopted this new toolkit to help employees return to, and stay in, productive work after prolonged sickness absence. This has been made available to 240,000 rail employees and over 100 rail line managers have been trained in its use.

Building research capacity

Research capacity built during the 4-year PIN project laid some of the key foundations for upscaled productivity research at the £32 million Productivity Institute at Alliance Manchester Business School. The institute was established in 2020, with £26 million of ESRC funding (the largest single grant in its history), and £6 million of funding from other institutions.

Find out more

The Productivity Insights Network is a finalist in the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize 2022. The team includes:

  • Philip McCann
  • Tim Vorley
  • Maria Abreu
  • Kate Penney
  • Kat Sloan
  • Richard Harris
  • Vania Sena
  • Gary Dymski
  • Ben Gardiner
  • Kirsty Newsome
  • Iain Docherty
  • Colin Mason
  • Andrew Henley
  • Robert Huggins
  • Leaza McSorley
  • Adam Brown
  • Jen Nelles
  • Jonathan Cook
  • Raquel Ortega-Argiles
  • Tony Venables
  • Patricia Rice
  • Andre Carrascal-Incera
  • Ron Martin
  • Phil Wallace

See the Productivity Insights Network website.

Read an overview of findings.

Top image:  Credit: Morsa Images, E+ via Getty Images

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