Aggregation of marginal gains – a way forward for the ailing UK economy

The recent performance of our Olympians, in particular the Team GB cyclists and their support team, is in stark contrast to that of the UK economy. We ask if there are lessons for the British government.
The UK economy faces a double-dip recession. Output is stagnant. The Bank of England’s programme of printing money appears to have failed. Interest rates are at a record low, and can not be lowered much further. On 9 August, it was announced that the UK’s trade gap widened sharply in June to its worst level since 1979, when comparable records began, and on 21 August we learned of a “surprise” increase in UK government borrowing in July.

The cause of these problems is due in no small part to excessive reliance since the 1980s on financial services and on North Sea oil and gas. Output of the latter is now declining, and we have learned that the foundations of the former were built on sand, with all the four largest British banks now in trouble, either bailed out by tax payers or at odds with regulators.

Rebalancing the UK economy towards exports may be a way out of this mess, and is one favoured by some politicians and economists. The strategy followed by Team GB’s cyclists shows a way forward. The Team’s performance manager, Dave Brailsford, has focused on “the aggregation of marginal gains”, examining almost every detail of the sport, from the cyclists themselves to their equipment, including streamlining using wind tunnel testing of rider and cycle combinations, tactics, sport psychiatry, hygiene, and nutrition.

In its efforts to restore the UK’s economy to health, the government could do worse than take a look at the strategy used by Team GB’s cyclists. How about aggregating marginal gains from looking at a range features affecting the UK’s economic performance including, of course, the measurement muddle?

It should be said that the reasons for completing the UK’s metric changeover are not primarily economic. UKMA believes that a country needs only one system of measurement, not two, and that one simple system would benefit everyone in the UK, not just business. But we are also certain that completion of the changeover would give rise to improvements in economic performance.

Such gains have been described in numerous reports and recently in the speech by Lord Howe in the House of Lords, so we will repeat only three:

1. School leavers have little facility with measurement of length and distance, having encountered a confusing mixture of imperial and metric when growing up, and so have to be trained to work in metric when starting employment.

2. Misunderstanding, mistakes and disputes occur when parties to a transaction use different systems of measurement. An example is office and commercial buildings which are always constructed in metric but often advertised for letting in imperial. Furthermore, conversion of measurements imposes additional costs.

3. Bridge strikes, caused by drivers unfamiliar with imperial measures, impose a direct and quantifiable cost on the UK economy for the damage caused, and an unquantifiable cost of delay and inconvenience for road users, rail passengers and freight operators.

David Kern, chief economist at the British Chambers of Commerce recently had this to say on the trade deficit:

“It is disappointing to see such a large trade deficit in June Although the monthly figures would have been affected by public holidays, such as the Diamond Jubilee, it is worrying that the trade deficit in the second quarter as a whole was much higher than in the first.
There is no question that British exporters are facing major challenges as a result of problems in the eurozone, but the rebalancing of the UK economy towards exports is taking too long.”

Forget the eurozone – this problem has been in the making since the 1980s.

If the UK government took up this challenge to look for marginal gains, could we expect the UK Department for Transport (DfT) to participate? The DfT must surely realize that the resources available for transport are dependent on the health of the UK economy. Is it too much to hope that it would make a contribution to improving the UK’s economic performance by bringing the units on road traffic signs into line with those used in the rest of the economy? A marginal gain perhaps, but one that could be easily achieved.

Or perhaps, like many others including some politicians, the DfT sees ‘going for gold’ as just too much trouble and would prefer instead relegation and a quiet life.

(Editor’s note: Dave Brailsford was knighted by the Queen on 28 February 2013, and is now Sir David.)

4 thoughts on “Aggregation of marginal gains – a way forward for the ailing UK economy”

  1. “It should be said that the reasons for completing the UK’s metric changeover are not primarily economic.”

    I would disagree with that statement – the single most important purpose of having a single measurement system comes down to economics in the end. Whether it is enabling our exporters to converse on equal terms with those from metric countries (i.e. almost the entire rest of the world), to eliminating errors in manufacturing and business due to conversion errors, to saving of time in not doing metric/imperial conversions in the first place, to making a bold statement that Britain is ‘open for business’ (to use the PM’s words – although chillingly they are the same words Brian Mulroney in Canada used when he destroyed Canada’s cultural and economic protections against rampant US invasion, including the requirement for metric-only labelling), there is an economic cost, or benefit, as the case may be, in the whole measurement process.

    Our road signs are of course the obvious target. I am firmly of the opinion that they cost this country dearly in lost export orders – as I’ve touched on these pages more than once, there are potential customers out there, not just from Europe but from almost anywhere in the world, who on seeing our road signs will look elsewhere rather than risk a measurment mix-up or a conversion error. We may not be able to calculate the lost business that ensues, but I believe it is there all the same.

    The government says it cannot afford to spend the money in converting the road signs. I say – can it afford not to? ANY government expenditure costs (taxpayers’) money. The justification for such expenditure is that there is a benefit which (hopefully) exceeds those costs. I feel that the cost of converting the road signs (even using the government’s own ridiculously inflated figures) will have an economic benefit that far exceeds those costs – and in the very areas touched upon in this article, i.e. the export of (metric designed and made) manufactured goods and services. If only we could get that message across to the dimwits in the DfT…


  2. The cost of modernising Britain’s road signs should be seen as an investment in the future of the country. Our road signs currently tell visitors and investors alike that we are stuck in the past and are not part of the modern world. This is completely at odds with what the government is trying to achieve and should be trying to achieve, namely showcasing Britain as a modern economy that is open to the world for business. Britain urgently needs to modernise and rebuild its economy.Politicians have wasted so much time already dithering and arguing over the issue of measurement units. I do not see Britain emerging as a leading 21st century economy and attracting the attention of the world’s investors unless it makes this relatively small investment in its own future.


  3. Metric measures help people understand their environment and make political decisions that have the results that they want. I do advocacy for rail in the US, and most people can’t read the reports that planners make, so they can’t judge their decisions.

    This has economic effects, but the impact of this is much broader than the economy.


  4. More bad news on the UK economy: government borrowing reached £14 billion in August, the highest figure for that month since records began.
    No sign that Mr Brailsford’s principle is being followed. Instead that of Mr Micawber – optimism and a belief that “something will turn up”. Still, his famous saying about “… expenditure nineteen shillings and six pence” still makes sense to the foot and inch enthusiasts at the DfT.


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