Her Majesty’s Stationery Office
Her Majesty’s Stationery Office
Norwich NR3 1PD
Fax: (603) 695 582
Incorporated: April 5, 1786
Sales: £400 million (US$580 million)
SICs: 2731 Book Publishing, 2711 Newspapers, 2721 Periodicals, 5112 Stationery & Office Supplies
Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, or HMSO, is an unusual type of company that, although owned and operated by the British government, is basically commercial in nature. Because HMSO has no guarantee of business from the British government, it must compete with private print and office supply companies. Although it did not become commercially independent until recently, HMSO has been in existence for more than 200 years, providing every manner of documentary support to the British government, including passports, parliamentary records, manuals, forms, computers, and office equipment.
HMSO came into being during the 1780s when, as the costs of maintaining its empire began to mount, the British Parliament undertook a study of redundant costs in the administration of the government. Among the study’s conclusions was that the government used too much paper. Naturally, those who most benefited from this abuse were the stationers who provided the parchment, ink, wax, and other supplies at public expense.
The government therefore set out to establish an official stationer who would be singularly accountable to the Treasury. On April 5, 1786, the government authorized John Mayor of the Treasury to create such an agency at New Palace Yard under the name His Majesty’s Stationery Office. Gradually, the government’s paper supply purchases were shifted to this office as the government’s contracts, or “patents,” with private suppliers expired. By August 15, 1787, the officially sanctioned Stationery Office supplied 11 agencies, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. The business of the Stationery Office—and its staff—continued to grow with the expiration of additional independent contracts, the last of which was terminated in 1800.
Lewis Wolfe ran the Office as comptroller from 1798 until 1802, when he was succeeded by George Dickins. Although all employees, and especially the comptroller, were subject to strict prohibitions against bribery and kickbacks, Dickins allowed discipline to erode. He came under suspicion after moving to new offices in New Scotland Yard in 1812, but it was not until ten years later that the government began an investigation into his activities.
The probe revealed that the Stationery Office’s business had grown too large for its system of management and that, because of this, many agencies had returned to private suppliers. The Lords of the Treasury later agreed that the Office should receive a fixed annual stipend for its services, and that it should be divided into separate purchasing and issuing arms. Further, while the staff was cut from 40 to 32, the Lords instructed all government agencies to direct their business to the Stationery Office.
Dickins died of apoplexy in 1824 and was replaced by the 29-year-old Alexander Spearman, who had authored the Treasury’s reorganization of the Office. Spearman held the post of Comptroller for only a year and was succeeded by John Church.
Church was considerably more aggressive in running the Stationery Office than his predecessors had been. In 1830 he boldly suggested that the Office take over the duties of printing that had been reserved for an enterprise run by Luke Graves Hansard. But while Hansard managed to hold on to the printing job, Church’s suggestion that work for the government be awarded under competitive bid took hold. The Office, which had evolved into a clearinghouse rather than a simple supplier of stationery goods, began to demand that its suppliers bid competitively.
With the dissolution of separate King’s stationers in Ireland in 1830 and in Scotland in 1833, the business of the Stationery Office continued to expand. In 1837, upon the death of King William IV and the ascension of Queen Victoria, Church ensured that all stationery items were changed to “Her” rather than “His” Majesty’s Stationery Office.
John McCulloch, a 49-year-old literary Scotsman, succeeded Church in 1838. Noting that the government was obliged, for no good reason, to publish and distribute every public petition to Parliament (numbering more than 15,258 between 1801 and 1834), McCulloch suggested that considerable savings would be realized with a simple rule change. Attributing the Office’s avalanche of paper to a rise in the activity of long-winded lawyers, McCulloch limited print runs to 1000 copies.
Also, having discovered that there was a profitable market for waste paper, McCulloch won the right to have excess paper returned to the Office for disposal. While the HMSO profited from resale of the paper, the task proved even more ominous than providing the paper in the first place.
The division of the Stationery Office into two units—a purchasing and an issuing division—never worked properly, and in 1856 the departments were reunited. In addition, some years earlier, HMSO created its own binding operation, eliminating costly subcontractors.
Hansard, meanwhile, ran a popular business printing records of Parliamentary debates. While technically a violation of secrecy rules, the records gained official status in 1855, when the Treasury instructed the Stationery Office to distribute 100 copies to public departments and colonial offices. Also that year, McCul-loch and the HMSO’s staff of 55 relocated to Queen Anne’s Royal Stables at Storey’s Gate on Princes Street.
McCulloch died in 1864, and was succeeded as Comptroller by another literary man, William Greg. Greg continued the practice of choosing suppliers by competitive bid. But, determined to keep HMSO “nontechnical,” he incorrectly judged the utility of new inventions, including the typewriter and the telephone.
Greg, however, died in 1877. Consistent with the wishes of the Commons, he was replaced not by another aristocrat, but by an experienced clerk with a facility for physical labor named Thomas Digby Pigott. Pigott’s appointment was called into question because his father, a friend of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, had maneuvered him into the job. Disraeli, however, defended Pigott, who proved an able administrator of HMSO. Within two years of taking the job, Pigott reorganized HMSO to better cope with the increasing demands the government was putting on it. By 1882, having taken on the production of numerous gazettes and acting as “printer to Her Majesty and all Acts of Parliament,” HMSO became a publisher as well as a stationer.
Concerned with the finances of the growing enterprise, the Treasury appointed yet another study of the Stationery Office. But Pigott demonstrated that the rise in his office’s expenditures was, in fact, low when compared to the demands placed upon it. The Treasury recommended the creation of an in-house reporting staff. Queen Victoria meanwhile expanded the Office’s publishing duties, effectively ending the private monopolies maintained by independent printers.
With the death of Queen Victoria and the ascension of a new king in 1899, the Stationery Office reverted to “His Majesty’s.” Pigott, who retired in 1905 with a knighthood, was succeeded as controller of the Office by Rowland Bailey, an absorbed, meticulous planner from the Office of Works.
Bailey’s first action was an appeal to bureaucrats to curtail the volume of their unnecessarily wordy paperwork. He led the Stationery Office’s takeover of the government’s Votes and Proceedings in 1907, and what remained of the Hansard record in 1909. The Office also saw increased demands because of the South African War, the National Insurance Act of 1911 and the Old Age Pensions Act. To supplement the Office’s income, Bailey established a series of book stores that were open to the public.
Sir Rowland (knighthoods had become customary for Office controllers) retired in 1913. He was succeeded by the calmer Frederick Atterbury, whose skills were immediately tested by the outbreak of World War I in 1914, when the Treasury was forced to recall all gold coinage to finance war preparations. Having abandoned the gold standard, the government directed the Stationery Office to arrange for the printing of one pound and, later, 10 shilling notes. Using penny stamp paper—the only secure quality available—and working from a design purportedly sketched by Atterbury himself, the Office arranged for several million notes to be printed and numbered by Waterlow Brothers, delivering them to banks within days.
The war put incredible strains on the Stationery Office, with increased requisitions for typewriters, calculating equipment, registers, and rotary duplicators. Although wartime shortages forced bureaucrats to reduce the flow of voluminous ramblings they had previously considered necessary, orders for millions of ration books and public notices far surpassed any decrease in the Office’s routine work. The stress was too much for subcontractors to handle, and many were forced to turn over their operations to the Stationery Office. To better handle distribution, the Office was divided into two regional branches, with the northern office located at Manchester, and numerous depots were established.
A new reinforced-concrete headquarters building, Cornwall House, was requisitioned by the army as a military hospital in 1918, before the Stationery Office could occupy it. That year, with a staff of more than 2,500 people, Atterbury resigned due to ill health. He was succeeded briefly by Ulick Wintour, and then by the assistant controller William Codling, who had risen through the Office hierarchy.
With the end of the war in 1919, Codling’s Stationery Office took over the operations of the India Office Press and, in 1922, the War Office Press. A year earlier, to reduce the Office’s burden on the public, Codling approved the inclusion of advertising in official documents. After its reorganization during the war, the structure of the Stationery Office remained intact for many years, proving economic and efficient in peacetime as well as wartime.
Continuing to expand its operations, the Stationery Office began publishing telephone directories in 1922, and in 1925 took on an ill-fitted cinematography section. But the Office had its difficulties. As an official state printer, HMSO had authority that many viewed as unfair in the marketplace. In 1926, a ten-day strike illustrated the depth of these feelings among the company’s workers.
But at that time, the Office underwent yet another government review, revealing that it was very efficiently and responsibly managed. Unlike the days under William Greg, the Office had become a modern operation, applying the latest technologies, including offset lithography, copiers, dictation machines, and mechanical calculators. Rising costs, it was determined, were attributable to the rapid expansion in the size of the government. By the mid-1930s, the Stationery Office itself employed more than 3,000 people, two-thirds of whom were laborers and tradesmen.
By the end of the 1930s, with growing hostilities in Europe, the government undertook secret precautions to prepare Britain for another war. The Stationery Office was instructed to supervise the printing of 78 million ration books and instruction manuals on everything from cooking to air raids. With the evacuation of London a distinct possibility, Sir William Codling established a second press facility in Manchester. But after the war began and London came under attack, Sir William and his staff remained in London with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Royal family. In 1942, after 43 years with the Stationery Office, and 23 years as its controller, Sir William retired.
His successor was ex-lawyer and deputy controller Norman Scorgie, who knew exactly how to get things done under the circumstances of war. In addition to the Stationery Office, Scorgie was pressed into service planning for the reconstruction of Germany. Fortunately, this inappropriate request of the Stationery Office was lost in the flurry of activity during 1945.
Under Scorgie, the postwar Stationery Office expanded its sales organization and mail order service. But while Sir Norman proved highly capable, he remained only until 1949, and was replaced by Sir Gordon Welch.
Sir Gordon dealt with the transition of the Ministry of Information into the Central Office of Information and guided it into a postwar relationship with the Stationery Office. He also oversaw another relocation of the head office, this time to Atlantic House on Holborn Viaduct in 1951. Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 was Sir Gordon’s swan song, as he retired from his job as controller that year and Sir John Simpson took over.
Sir John believed that the Stationery Office had clearly overstepped its bounds of authority when private printers pointed out that the Office had begun selling items such as Christmas cards. These, the printers charged, were being produced under state subsidies. Sir John could not deny, however, that profits from these sales were made necessary by losses sustained on publications such as The Highway Code, Horse Flies of the Ethiopian Region, The Measurement of Small Holes (translated from Russian), and The Rent Act and You. Indeed, the Stationery Office even served as a distributor for United Nations publications. A government investigation in 1957 recommended that the work of the Stationery Office be streamlined and limited only to service to the central government. Later, the Office was relieved of its reprographic duties.
During the 1950s, the Stationery Office operated eight production factories, and subcontracted work to an additional 1,700 private firms. Concentrated in London, the Stationery Office had been asked to move with other government agencies to new locations outside the city. The task of moving fell to Sir Percy Faulkner, who succeeded Sir John in 1961. After considering Basingstoke, Swindon, and Norwich, Sir John deferred to the vote of his senior managers and chose the latter.
The move to Norwich marked several important changes for the Stationery Office, which had begun using the acronym HMSO. It greatly expanded its business by delving headlong into computerization. The proliferation of telephony in England dictated thicker phone books, which necessitated a larger printing facility at Gateshead on Tyneside in 1968. In addition to that and millions of government documents, HMSO had responsibility for Yellow Pages directories, pension books, Girocheques, and passports.
By 1972, HMSO was again under review. This time it was suggested that the Office revamp its management system to a system of accountability. It was also suggested that HMSO modernize its accounting methods, requiring the installation of virtually all its existing production accounting equipment. In labor issues, the government asked HMSO to open an industrial relations office, and the company engaged in formal personnel management for the first time in its history.
The period also saw a parade of several short-time controllers, including Harry Pitchforth, who served from 1967 to 1969, Clifford Baylis, who served until 1974, and Harold Glover, who continued until 1977 when Bernard Thimont was appointed.
Although he served only until 1981, Thimont was instrumental in recreating HMSO as a business, using commercial-style accounting methods and even issuing annual reports. Under pressure from the new conservative government of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to reduce expenses in the Civil Service, Thimont cut HMSO’s staff by 10 percent in 1980. That same year, hoping to fully convert HMSO, Thimont won the right to charge government clients for their orders, shifting the budgetary burden from HMSO to customers, who found new incentives to cut waste.
Thimont left HMSO at the beginning of 1981 and Bill Sharp, a former controller of The Crown Suppliers, became its controller. Taking Thimont’s goals a bit further, Sharp sought employees “with the spirit of businessmen rather than the spirit of bureaucrats.” Sharp pressed for early retirements, reducing the HMSO work force from 6,000 in 1981 to 4,360 in 1983. He also reinstated board meetings and introduced corporate-style five-year business plans.
The preparations were necessary, as the government planned to remove HMSO from its annual stipend and lift the stipulation that government departments buy only from HMSO. After April 1, 1982—“Untying Day”—any agency that could find a better deal elsewhere was free not to patronize HMSO.
Sharp, who had brought about a similar business conversion at The Crown Suppliers, oversaw the reorganization of HMSO in 1984. The business was divided into four operations: supply, print procurement, publications, and production. In the process of reorganization HMSO spun off a telephone directory business. The company was left to stand on its own feet and compete on a purely commercial basis.
The first few years after “untying,” HMSO fared quite well, maintaining, and even expanding its volume of business. Its primary promotional campaign was a numerical comparison of price efficiencies that demonstrated to the agency’s customers exactly how much they had saved by using HMSO.
As part of an effort to continue driving down costs, HMSO began modernizing its production processes. In 1987, under John Dole, a new Parliamentary Press facility was opened, the Manchester plant was updated, and a new computer-assisted print ordering system was introduced.
The following year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer conferred upon HMSO a broader liberalization of its operating procedures, further enabling it to behave as a commercial operation. The Executive Agency status gave HMSO the freedom to establish a more decentralized organization and establish pay scales that were more in line with the market environment. This caused great concern on the part of several unions, but by 1990 a series of new labor agreements was in place that preserved employee harmony and, for the moment, eliminated the threat of strikes. The agreement also validated HMSO’s transformation from a civil service employer to a real business.
Paul Freeman, who was named controller of HMSO in 1988, established a corporate quality council, whose job it was to implement a total quality management scheme, using the Juran project-by-project methodology. This enabled HMSO to gain government BS5750 accreditation—a government endorsement of methods and quality—at several of its facilities. To mark the significant changes that had occurred at HMSO at this time, the organization took a new logo in April of 1990. HMSO is not likely to make the final bound to privatization. The nature of its business, which includes numerous highly sensitive documents, is perhaps too vital to entrust to private enterprise. But the overwhelming majority of HMSO’s work is commercial in nature, so it must remain a commercially competitive organization, albeit one that is an agency of the government.
Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, The Story of the First 200 Years, 1786-1986, Hugh Baity-King, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, Norwich, England, 1986; Annual Reviews, HMSO, Norwich, England, Í987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992.