Earlier this year, entrepreneur and founder of The School for Startups, Doug Richard, published his Entrepreneurs' Manifesto – a "declaration of rights" for small businesses.
The manifesto sets out eight demands to a new government, each of which addresses a different key concern for businesses. In the build-up to the 6 May general election, Donut MD Rory MccGwire is offering his thoughts on the issues raised by Doug Richard.
Scrap Business Link?
In his manifesto, Doug Richard calls on the new government to scrap the Business Link business support service to provide savings and to migrate all government business support services online to promote efficiency.
In the report he wrote for the Conservative party earlier, I think he also recommended using the universities and specialist providers such as the British Library as a replacement business support network on the ground. More recently, Mark Prisk, the Conservative Shadow Minister for Business, has been talking about using the existing network of Enterprise Agencies for this role.
I'm sure Doug is as pleased as I am to see that the government is already going flat out to move the whole business of government online. Thousands of disparate systems and websites are being corralled into three mega websites: direct.gov for individuals, and nhs.uk for health.
Yes, this is expensive, but what an improvement.
Lots of individuals lack a computer, but most businesses are online and will readily engage with businesslink.gov, as the evidence already shows. We small and medium-sized enterpriseslike being able to do tax returns and company searches etc online; it is a real convenience. We also use the huge library of advice pages.
So let's talk about the more contentious idea of scrapping face-to-face business support. But first, a bit of history.
In the 18 years I've run BHP, I've seen governments come and go. At every general election, there's a clamour to change the way government delivers business support. And we do change - all too frequently.
In the 1970s, we had Enterprise Agencies, which were hailed as fulfilling an important need.
Then someone said "No let's have Training and Enterprise Councils", so we had 82 TECs, with a £1.3bn budget to help SMEs in England and Wales. Scotland decided to have 22 LECs.
Why 82 TECs? Because support had to be local, as everyone seemed to agree that "a business in Preston has a different set of needs to a business in Portsmouth" (nonsense on the whole, but that's a topic in itself…).
Then someone (I won't mention Tarzan by name, as I'm trying to stay clear of party politics) said "No, these TECs are failing, let's have a one-stop shop for business support. We'll call it Business Link". So we had had 82 Business Links, as local was still flavour of the month, while Wales invented something else new called Business Eye.
Meanwhile the government had also created a network of nine massive organisations called Regional Development Agencies (in England only), each with a list of tasks and targets that went on for pages and pages.
At this point someone said "Crikey, this costs a fortune and the quality and type of business support varies far too much, so let's take the 82 Business Links and make them into nine Business Links".
And that's where we are today. Endless change. If you ran a business like this, you would have gone bust over and over again. The cost of this never-ending change is too much to even contemplate.
But, finally, we have a brand that, like any commercial brand, has been allowed time to establish itself. Hallelujah. There are even road signs saying Business Link in some towns.
The question now is what we want the brand to offer, and how business support should be delivered. I'll deal with that in my next blog.