Management of scientific institutions NPL 1995–98: the transition from agency to government-owned contractor operated (GOCO)
The last 10 years have seen a number of changes taking place in the management of publicly funded research institutions. Some have been transferred wholesale to the private sector, some closed and most encouraged to diversify their sources of funding. One management approach is that of the Government Owned Contractor Operated (GOCO). In this approach, the assets of the institute remain in state ownership but the responsibility of managing the institute and its research programmes is passed to a private sector management company. The UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) has been managed under such an arrangement since 1995. NPL is responsible for the physical measurement standards which underpin much of the UK industrial base.
This study, undertaken three years after the change in status, was concerned to identify what changes had taken place and what general management lessons could be learnt which might be applied elsewhere. The study wanted to discover if there had been any change in the ‘values’ of NPL, such as quality, integrity etc., as seen by industry, partner research groups and the research staff at NPL itself. The interviews of staff took place at the end of 1998. The study found that the contract has led to significant savings in the cost of research programmes through the adoption of greatly improved programme formulation processes and better resource management. Better commercial practice in marketing, finance, procurement and general business administration has permitted significant one‐off and on going savings in the costs of operating the facility. Less restrictive recruitment has led to an influx of new, younger, scientific staff bringing in new ideas and values.
At the same time GOCO has not adversely affected the quality of scientific work, diminished the high international standing of NPL or led to significant staff demotivation. But neither has the change made much progress in changing deep rooted cultural factors nor resolving certain internal communication challenges. Improved responsiveness to customers is still an issue. GOCO has undoubtedly started to release the remarkable potential of NPL and has brought into much sharper focus some new challenges. Continuous rapid change is taking place in many of the eventual users of NPL work. Companies are looking for new ways of meeting their needs. This will create science and business opportunities.
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