Remember the Richard Report? It seems Mark Prisk does!

[Update: Mark Prisk originally asked Doug to chair the task force so is more than entitled to share the credit! See Doug's comment blow. Ed]

Reading Prisk's comments to Real Business magazine that "Regional Business Links have spent too much time signposting and not enough time actually advising" and that the government could "deliver a lot more online and make better use of the private providers" was close to a direct lift from the report's findings which concluded:

What do I find most pleasing about today's confirmation by small business minister Mark Prisk that the government will indeed scrap all regional Business Links? Well not just that it'll save millions of pounds of wastage on a scheme few used and even fewer found effective, but the hope it represents the dawn of an era where the government listens to business. Now that would be something to get excited about.
While Mark Prisk and the new Con-Lib coalition government might be happy to take the credit for deciding to wield the axe on local Business Links (and I'm happy to afford them this), the move itself and every justification for it mirrored the findings of the Richard Report, published back in 2008 by the Small Business Task Force, chaired by School4Startups' Doug Richard.
Reading Prisk's comments that "Regional Business Links have spent too much time signposting and not enough time actually advising" and that the government could "deliver a lot more online and make better use of the private providers" was close to a direct lift from the report's findings which concluded:
"The Government has overly regionalised and politicised business support by making
it a flagship responsibility of the new RDAs. The regionalisation of Business Link has
removed both the advantage of local governance and the efficiency and impartiality
of central Government. They provide neither the advantage of local governance nor the efficiency and impartiality of central Government. Thus, the devolution of power from Whitehall has, paradoxically, made services more remote from the people."
Indeed, Prisk claim that "the vast majority of private businesses don't use public services" somewhat underplayed the report's finding that just 0.5% of small businesses using government-funded support said they were satisfied with it.
Prisk's proposal today for superior national web-based business information system combined with private sector face-to-face support organised via Chambers of Commerce is also a direct finding of the report:
"There is already a variety of well-established support services run by organisations such
as Local Enterprise Agencies and Chambers of Commerce, which bring together qualified
advisers with a business background, an established local reputation, and support from
the local business community and local authorities. National business organisations also
offer valued advice and support. We propose the whole regional business support apparatus of RDAs and Business Links should be replaced by a single, web-based Business Information Service. This new portal would be an open exchange where businesses could find all the information available to them in one place offered impartially and independent of any provider of advice, grants or finance."
So well done, Mr Prisk and the new government for acting on research conducted by entrepreneurs - so far so good. The decision appears to have been well received by small businesses too.
The comments section on Real Business and initial discussion on Twitter certainly suggests it is popular with the majority. Of course, it'd be remiss not to reference several dissenting voices putting forward legitimate cases of excellent personal support from Business Link - but these appear to be just that, instances where a Business Link individual has exceeded the quality of delivery of the system they're part of.
Let's not get too carried away, though. If the government is to follow through with a central online information centre as the Richard Report suggested, execution will be crucial to its effectiveness and despite a commitment to cut spend on gov websites by 75% there will be digital agencies rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of a handsome tender.
I'll repeat what I said in response to the news the Business Link and UKTI websites were under review: the government should stick to what businesses need to know (essential tax, legal, admin and regulatory information) and not attempt to provide advice businesses don't want from it.
We'd like to think Smarta is among organisations including 4Networking, School4Startups, UK Business Forums and Ecademy which are already either providing advice or facilitate peer-to-peer networking, information exchange and mentoring businesses are choosing to use. Better the government throws its support behind the services than waste more money trying to replicate them.
As the Richard Report also recommended, the government's role should be to facilitate support not run it and the assessment of the quality support services should come from the people who know best: those that are using them. The report suggested the creation of an eBay-based feedback system and such a concept is indeed intriguing.
For now though, it's good to see the government is listening and acting. We said last month that we'd collect all your opinions about what you'd like to see from the new government and what support you would most benefit from. We're still collecting that information so keep your views coming and then we'll deliver them to Mr Prisk to ensure your view is heard.

"The Government has overly regionalised and politicised business support by making it a flagship responsibility of the new RDAs. The regionalisation of Business Link has removed both the advantage of local governance and the efficiency and impartiality of central Government. They provide neither the advantage of local governance nor the efficiency and impartiality of central Government. Thus, the devolution of power from Whitehall has, paradoxically, made services more remote from the people."

Indeed, Prisk's claim that "the vast majority of private businesses don't use public services" somewhat underplayed the report's finding that just 0.5% of small businesses using government-funded support said they were satisfied with it.

Prisk's proposal today for superior national web-based business information system combined with private sector face-to-face support organised via Chambers of Commerce is also a direct finding of the report:

"There is already a variety of well-established support services run by organisations such as Local Enterprise Agencies and Chambers of Commerce, which bring together qualified advisers with a business background, an established local reputation, and support from the local business community and local authorities. National business organisations also offer valued advice and support. We propose the whole regional business support apparatus of RDAs and Business Links should be replaced by a single, web-based Business Information Service. This new portal would be an open exchange where businesses could find all the information available to them in one place offered impartially and independent of any provider of advice, grants or finance."

So well done, Mr Prisk and the new government for acting on research conducted by entrepreneurs - so far so good. The decision appears to have been well received by small businesses too.

The comments section on Real Business and initial discussion on Twitter certainly suggests it is popular with the majority. Of course, it'd be remiss not to reference several dissenting voices putting forward legitimate cases of excellent personal support from Business Link - but these appear to be just that, instances where a Business Link individual has exceeded the quality of delivery of the system they're part of.

Let's not get too carried away, though. If the government is to follow through with a central online information centre as the Richard Report suggested, execution will be crucial to its effectiveness and despite a commitment to cut spend on gov websites by 75% there will be digital agencies rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of a handsome tender.

I'll repeat what I said in response to the news the Business Link and UKTI websites were under review: the government should stick to what businesses need to know (essential tax, legal, admin and regulatory information) and not attempt to provide advice businesses don't want from it.

We'd like to think Smarta is among organisations including 4Networking, School4Startups, UK Business Forums and Ecademy which are already either providing advice or facilitate peer-to-peer networking, information exchange and mentoring businesses are choosing to use. Better the government throws its support behind these services than waste more money trying to replicate them.

As the Richard Report also recommended, the government's role should be to facilitate support not run it and the assessment of the quality support services should come from the people who know best: those that are using them. The report suggested the creation of an eBay-based feedback system and such a concept is indeed intriguing.

For now though, it's good to see the government is listening and acting. We said last month that we'd collect all your opinions about what you'd like to see from the new government and what support you would most benefit from. We're still collecting that information so keep your views coming and then we'll deliver them to Mr Prisk to ensure your view is heard. Email me at matt@smarta.com.

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