A hint of criticism lost in all the back-patting?

Last week’s debate on Business Links elicited some self-congratulation from the Government, but proved inconclusive.

Design received uncontested billing as an essential aspect of any effective service provided by Business Links in last Thursday’s House of Common’s debate on the network.

While it was acknowledged by Barbara Roche, shadow small business minister, as a “sensitive area for Business Links”, Labour MP for Huddersfield Barry Sheerman commented that the monitoring of service provided by design counsellors would play an essential part in measuring the quality and overall success of the Links.

“The programme delivers three kinds of specific advice: on exporting, design, and information technology, all of which are vital,” said Sheerman. “The most fascinating and encouraging of those is advice on design. The Design Council’s input is probably the secret of the programme’s success, because the local design networks that support the design counsellor give advice on which he or she can rely, as well as a lot of information issued by the Design Council through publications and networking. That is how to maintain quality.

“Criticisms are inevitable as the system gets up and running, but the design counsellor aspect is the secret of Business Links’ success. If we want quality we must ensure that management and advice are monitored, and the Design Council has a role to play in that respect,” he added.

While it is encouraging that the value of design is at last beginning to be acknowledged by policy- and decision-makers in Parliament, the Links debate itself was by and large disappointing. All parties scrambled to claim the idea as their own, and there was a general consensus that the concept of a one-stop advice shop for small and medium-sized businesses was a good one.

Richard Page, the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Energy, called the Links “the most exciting support system for small business that the country has ever seen”. And Roche agreed with Page, saying the idea was “undoubtedly a good one”.

Amid the general back-patting, however, some questions were raised about the quality of the service and also the medium- and long-term Department of Trade and Industry funding support of the network, the two pivotal areas on which the success or failure of the Links depends.

One of Roche’s main criticisms was targeted at the Government’s handling of the network, which has been under scrutiny since the first links were set up in 1993. “Ministers have handled the implementation of that decision [setting up the network] incompetently, hastily and in a manner that – according to the DTI’s own internal auditors – exposed the department to ‘financial risk and embarrassment’,” she said.

Roche went on to ask for substantial assurances that the “parlous financial state” of some links referred to in the year-old auditors’ report had improved. She was backed by Sheerman, who raised the more immediate question of “where the medium and long-term funding will come from and whether the DTI’s commitment will remain once the initial finance period dries up”.

The murky funding in the early days of the Links is nothing new. But this debate has again failed to answer or clarify the issue.

Worryingly, future DTI funding support of the network is still unsettled, and Page gave nothing away with regard to his department’s plans when the initial finance period of three years ends.

“The Government has given a commitment to the three-year programme and we shall look beyond that when the time comes,” insisted Page. He added that he is “convinced that there must be some element of charging”. No surprises there.

Addressing the issue of quality, there was again a general consensus that the Links will only survive if they offer a good quality service. Predictably, Page quoted several instances where businesses had been happy with the level of advice they’d received.

Roche was more realistic, saying that “the overwhelming picture of Business Links so far is that the service is patchy”, and she went on to quote a letter sent to Design Week by EDR’s Karina Sonzogni detailing an inadequate and laughable response to a query from Manchester Link’s design counsellor (DW 12 January).

“While we welcome the setting up of the Links, the sad fact is that the Government’s mismanagement of the scheme means that the picture has not changed for far too many small businesses. A good idea has been mishandled by the Government…” added Roche.

The one glimmer of light in the debate came from Page’s outline of systems being put into place to monitor and evaluate the network. Each Link is required to undergo an accreditation process based on ISO9001, and there will be a third-party assessment by approved certification bodies, operating independently from the Government.

Additionally, a quarterly monitoring information service covering the number of businesses using the Links, the number of businesses provided with information by the Links, and the number of businesses advised by personal business advisors is being set up. The service will also monitor customer satisfaction.

Ernst & Young is currently evaluating the earliest Business Links and MORI is operating a tracking service to measure firms’ awareness, perception and use of the Links.

These monitoring initiatives are a start, and the results should have an interesting impact on how the system develops. But it remains to be seen whether the initiatives have been put into place too late.m

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