Lawrence Tomlinson spent the last year as the Department for Business' entrepreneur-in-residence. In an exclusive and candid article, he shares what he learnt.
Having spent a year in the Department and Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), I learned a lot about the inner workings of government, although I confess I never worked out how to use the security-coded photocopier! My time as entrepreneur-in-residence has given me insight into the efforts being made to help UK businesses as well as the barriers faced internally with making change. Here are the top seven things I learned over the past year:
1. Help is there; if you know where to find it
Within my first week at the Department, I found a number of schemes which would have been helpful for some of my businesses had I known about them. In fact, there are almost 800 finance and support schemes which are supported by the government.
The problem is, until the past six months, BIS has had no marketing budget and therefore no way of letting businesses know about these schemes. The 'Business is Great' campaign is starting to make some headway in raising the profile of these schemes, whether finance or mentoring, and the bis.gov.uk
website has a useful finance finder tool as well as resources to aid you developing, starting up, and growing your business. I’d recommend taking a look at the websites:
2. Civil Servants work extremely hard
I always take the opportunity where I can to praise the officials within BIS. Like many in the private sector, my perception of civil servants was that they were all sitting around, waiting for their gold plated pensions. This honestly could not be further from the truth. Everyone I met was 100% dedicated to boosting growth. I received a lot of support from the BIS team and their commitment to helping businesses was palpable.
It is fair to say that they are restricted at times in what they can achieve. The interplay of government and Parliament is extremely complex and very opaque to an outsider. Responsibility is often split between departments, agencies and regulators, and then if you throw politics into the mix, it is easy to see why things move slowly. The civil servants I met, however, where not perturbed by this and I am sure they will continue to fight for policies which will have a direct benefit to business.
3. Sometimes you have to stick your head above the parapet
Even in government, individuals are able to get to the truth and make a change. All it requires is the strength of conviction and a determination to have an impact. If you push hard enough and show that you are acting with integrity things can move faster and the barriers to change stop being insurmountable.
4. Access to finance remains a significant problem
Believe it or not, the origins of the Tomlinson Report
came from initial concerns over mixed messages around access to finance (A2F). There was much discrepancy between messages being played in government and the national media comparative to the experience of businesses. As I had initially suspected, the truth was that A2F is still a serious problem for many businesses.
It is fair to say that not all lending institutions are the same, and there is some really good work on going to increase lending, but this is not consistent across all lenders. Certainly some sectors are finding A2F easier than others. Sadly, however, lending policy often seems to be at loggerheads with economic policy and finance for sectors which will drive the real economy, manufacturing, construction and exporting etc, seem to be the most difficult. If we want to turn this consumer-led growth into long term economic sustainable growth, then this needs rectifying.
5. Never trust a lobbyist (unless they are on your side of course!)
The influence of certain organisations, trade associations and individuals within government came as a real shock to me. I believe that lobbying serves a valid purpose, and can raise important issues, but only if conflicts and interests are declared and the process is transparent. Paragraph 7.25 of the Ministerial Code states that:
"On leaving office, Ministers will be prohibited from lobbying Government for two years. They must also seek advice from the independent Advisory Committee on Business Appointments about any appointments or employment they wish to take up within two years of leaving office.”
This however does not seem to apply to senior officials and advisors. In parts of government, there is a revolving door with the large corporates who have a deep interest in government policy. So whilst accepting the principle of the conflict of interest that appointments after leaving post have, this is not extended to those who advise on and write the policies.
Lobby groups, such as the British Bankers Association, also have their foot through the door in many parts of government despite their part in the LIBOR scandal. Having taken control of many data sources, and funded government programmes they are, to an extent, deemed indispensible. The conflicts of interest are plainly apparent, and the number of lobbyists and force they have, can hardly be matched by the business community. These interests need to be made more transparent to prevent these conflicts having an impact on our policy making processes.
6. There is a tension between party politics and good policy
I found that MPs and parliamentarians were often very helpful and wanted to do the right things for their constituents. Unfortunately, too often issues are turned into political point scoring at which point MPs are sometimes forced to retrench behind party political lines, whether they think it is the right thing or not. It is a shame, although perhaps not altogether surprising.
7. You really are in 'The Thick of It'
There are moments when you feel you have just jumped into shot for a scene of 'The Thick of It'. Perhaps Terry, Ollie and Malcolm are not so fictional after all...