Posted: Wed 29th Jul 2015
I've given governments of all colours a lot of flack over the years for the way they communicate with small business owners. Poor consultation, bad regulations and confusing support structures have been all too common. But then, this week, Export Jam happened.
The brain wave of UK Trade and Investment's Ideas Lab, which I didn't know existed until last week, the Jam sweeps away the conventions of formal conferences and lets business owners and anyone else interested in enterprise chuck around ideas and give frank feedback on what isn't working and what can be done to fix it.
All proposed new rules go through a consultation but that often means a dry document buried deep on a government website; Export Jam was not that.
Government is also often accused of been biased towards London and ignoring other areas so UKTI organised Export Jam in nine locations across England simultaneously. I went to the one in Bristol.
The tone was set immediately when after I raised my hand to make a critical point about UKTI for which I said "no offence to the government but..", the facilitator told us we didn't need to apologise. The UKTI officials in the room wanted as direct feedback as possible (without being rude of course!).
So the flood gates opened.
Passionate entrepreneurs related real life stories of their efforts to export and access support. I raised the point that there's actually loads of support out there but business owners often can't find it. This point was illustrated when an entrepreneur said there should be a place for people to connect online with international trade experts. I told him about Open to Export which launched in 2012. He had never heard of it.
We then got into teams to come with ideas. When phrases like 'customer journey mapping' started to be used I got a little worried that David Brent had entered the room but it worked. We plotted on a huge sheet of paper exactly how the government should create a personalised export support service that delivers exactly what entrepreneurs need.
There was also some healthy debate. When one business owner said he wants to be told exactly how he exports his products in specific markets, I asked whether there comes a point when advice needs to be paid for. "Should business owners get everything got free?", I asked. The UKTI official on our table certainly pricked up his ears on that one.
After a pleasant lunch we then had to formulate our pitch. But it wasn't the usual standing on a stage with a boring PowerPoint presentation as we had to record a two minute video using all sorts of weird and wonderful props; Star Wars Lego figures, balloons, straws and thread among them.
My team chose to not go for the mini Darth Vader and opted for a massive sheet of brown paper on which we plotted our design for the ultimate support platform. You can see the result in the video below.
During the whole day ideas and conversations were also happening on the Export Jam Made Open website, a very simple but very effective discussion platform. It allowed people not at the events to take part and the ideas in the room to be captured.
I left the event feeling very positive and it was brilliant to see the government actually thinking like businesses and creating an environment where genuinely useful and actionable ideas were formulated.
The next step of course is actually seeing whether the government does anything with all our hard work. The UKTI host admitted it would be a long time until we do see results. That's fine but only if it does actually happen.
I truly hope the Jam concept is rolled out to other areas of business support and I can write more positive articles about the government really engaging with business owners.
Overheard today: "THIS is how Government needs to be talking to business. Not through "consultations". #ExportJam EE"” UKTI Ideas Lab (@UKTIIdeasLab) July 28, 2015
Dan Martin is head of content at Enterprise Nation.