As my quest to obtain reimbursement of not insignificant travel expenses owed to me by the European Commission enters its seventh month, a couple of things have occurred to me: not only are governments of all descriptions and flavours completely out of touch with small business, but they undoubtedly also get the quality of expert advice that they pay for.
Back in the early part of the year I gave up two and a half days, unpaid, to attend a European Commission Science and Technology foresight workshop in Brussels, organised by Anne Glover, the EC Chief Scientific Advisor. The aim of the workshop was to scope the potential impacts of disruptive technologies so that European funding could focus on areas that would create the greatest benefits for European society. This was surely a worthy aim, but I believe that the execution reveals a fundamental flaw at the heart of such policy consultations.
Originally I was invited to address the gathering on developments in smart and sustainable cities, which was to be a short scene setting piece along with contributions from other experts from a wide variety of fields. In the end however, the workshop format was changed and I ended up, along with the other invited experts, merely contributing to discussion groups where we were outnumbered about 6 to 1 by euro-apparatchiks of one form or another.
This was a moment of revelation for me: The people who advise governments through such consultations are either from other institutions or from large businesses, not the people who really know about the issues; the pioneering small businesses. The average small business leader generally has more pressing concerns, such as ensuring continuing revenue and the ability to pay staff, to participate in unrelated, unpaid activity. Thus, unless policymakers are prepared to pay for the time of experts, the vast majority of people that they hear from will be those either paid to push a particular agenda or otherwise seeking influence.
This issue becomes increasingly problematic when it comes to trying to anticipate the impacts of new and potentially disruptive technologies. Disruption occurs when innovation leads to a revolutionary way of doing things, replacing the current business, social or policy paradigm. Disruption is impossible to predict from the viewpoint of the current paradigm which is embodied in current policy and established business practice. What I noticed in particular during the foresight workshop, was that many participants were simply regurgitating received wisdom, but the real insights came from the independently thinking small businesspeople, often from alternative fields.
The UK Technology Strategy Board (now rebranding as Innovate UK) does pay experts to help in seeking out innovation, at least through evaluating bids for public funding. The pay rates offered don’t actually cover the opportunity cost of the time commitment, but at least they allow us to convince ourselves that participation is not to the entire detriment of our businesses. The fact that we are paid experts also, I believe, engenders goodwill when it comes to our giving pro-bono support to help scope future competitions and contribute to the organisation’s wider aims.
On another tack, UK Government is regularly heard to lament the lack of innovation in publicly procured projects. It often blames this on the failure of SMEs to engage in public procurement, whilst continuing to set barriers to entry that preclude many SMEs based on finances and size of business. Looking at this picture as a whole, is it any wonder that so many small businesspeople are entirely disengaged from the public sector?
So, my message to governments and other policy organisations is that, if you want to receive meaningful advice and support from the expert small business community then you need to engage meaningfully with us, rather than simply expecting to be able to exploit us when it suits you and ignore us otherwise.
Maybe one day the European Commission will finally cough up my travel expenses and I’ll be so grateful for small mercies that I will be flooded afresh with goodwill towards governmental institutions. On the other hand, maybe the offhand way in which they have repeatedly dismissed my concerns mean that I might just continue to feel that my goodwill has been callously exploited.