‘The decline of DECC’s 2050 Calculator reflects the limitations of civil service imagination’

Two of the architects of the former Department of Energy and Climate Change tool for mapping the future UK energy system, which won the 2013 Civil Service Award for Analysis, explore its birth, benefits and demise

The 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. The 2050 calculator was used in the UK government response. Credit: ABACA/PA Images

2009 feels like a long time ago. Fallout from the financial crisis drifted slowly over the political landscape. The expenses scandal broke. Swine flu was on the rampage. And as the year drew to a close, over 25,000 people joined a climate change march through the centre of London, walking past the newly minted Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

DECC was an optimistic department with a charmed beginning. It owned a policy area that enjoyed a level of cross-party political consensus that now seems almost unimaginable. It had a clear mission, a coherent strategy, and ambitious civil servants queuing up to join. Crucially, it was a new institution, with a licence to work in a new way.

Energy and climate change are both frothy topics. They are occupied by well-funded interest groups and committed campaigners; groups inclined to telling simple, strong stories, written in black and white. Yet it is also a system of fiendish complexity, often painted in shades of grey. Energy policy trade-offs aren’t binary. Pulling one lever – saying no to onshore wind, for example  –  sparks lights all over the dashboard, some in unexpected places.

"Models are often presented to civil servants as the finished article. They are perceived as being a source of answers to either cherry-pick from or ignore. This is at best an incomplete view."

David McKay, the man who ultimately became the DECC’s first chief scientific adviser, was more aware of this than most. A Cambridge engineering professor, his book Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air was an appeal to put numbers and reason at the heart of the policy debate. It was clearly written, showed its working, and as dispassionately as possible, showed what choices were physically possible and what the consequences would be. How much space would 1,000 wind turbines actually take up? What contribution could geothermal energy really make to UK energy supply? Was turning down our thermostats more effective at reducing emissions than giving up petrol cars?

David’s book was an invaluable tool to policymakers and ministers. The problem was that books are static. Their accuracy degrades over time, and there is never enough space to recount every possible scenario. What DECC needed was a better chance of hitting a moving target; a tool that applied up-to-date evidence to the millions of options available on the energy policy menu, with the same openness and clarity that the book managed. The answer was the 2050 Calculator.

The Calculator was a relatively simple Excel-based model. It allowed users to pick their preferred version of the UK energy system, and see the effects on energy supply, demand and emissions, among other things. The front-end hid the model’s mechanics and made it easy to play with.

When governments need to make policy fit for the timeline of a typical administration, the standard model can work well. But the Calculator was especially good at helping policy-making in scenarios where that process often struggled; long-term strategic planning, and real-time, reactive response. It was used to help set the UK’s fourth carbon budget between 2023 and 2027; it was a part of the government’s rapid response to the Fukushima disaster.

Models are often presented to civil servants as the finished article. They are perceived as being a source of answers to either cherry-pick from or ignore. This is at best an incomplete view. Going through the process of making a model is arguably much more valuable than the output. The cycles of development, testing and improvement that informed the Calculator brought together people with diverse experience and seniority, doing so on more or less equal terms.

The 2050 Calculator allowed for a different kind of conversation to take place. Models force a systemic approach. Systems analysis is hard to make compelling to those who have never experienced it, and near impossible to draw out on paper. Having a tool that confronts users with the second and third order consequences of their decision reduces the urge to boil policy down to binary choices. Models do the hard work to make things simpler.

"Google ‘2050 Calculator’ and you’ll still find several pages of GOV.UK dedicated to the work, as well as the tool itself. What you won’t find are many signs of life"

Telling simple stories about complex systems is something officials have done for centuries. Those who can marshal words well tend to thrive. The perennial problem for the civil service is that the best storytellers are often drawn from similar backgrounds: the humanities, the generalists, the bluffers even — if one was being unkind. Accessible models like the 2050 Calculator make it easier for more people to write their own stories, based on a numerate reality. Reaching the 2050 target, to reduce emissions by 80%, becomes a case of the user developing their own policy narrative: “I chose less nuclear and more renewables, I had to believe that storage would be taken up rapidly…” and so on. Making the evidence available and accessible to all allows it to travel further. For the Calculator, it opened up a conversation that saw the model adapted for use in several other countries, and ultimately applied to the global stage.

The 2050 Calculator was open, iterative, multidisciplinary, evidence-led; following the mantra of modern policy-making. It was humbly imperfect, proudly so, even. Achieving that required innovation in the artefacts and formats of civil service life, as much as smart thinking about the policy itself. Sometimes a submission cannot do justice to the complexity of the problem.

Google ‘2050 Calculator’ and you’ll still find several pages of GOV.UK dedicated to the work, as well as the tool itself. What you won’t find are many signs of life. It is doubtful the Calculator now plays any role in domestic policy-making; the momentum and soft power it generated for the UK by showing international leadership has dissipated.

The Calculator illustrated a new way of framing systemic problems for decision-makers. In so doing, it challenged policymaking orthodoxy. The work implicitly presented an affront to how many civil servants organised their thoughts. It also challenged how civil servants typically organised themselves; in siloed teams, divided by department, discipline and grade. This kind of challenge is rarely popular, however apparent it is that models work best when policy generalists and deep experts work together.

The tool’s decline does not reflect the limitations of applying analysis and evidence to political questions. Sadly, it reflects the limitations of institutional imagination. It is a paradox that governments find it easier to reorganise the country’s energy system than they do to reorganise themselves.

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