I’ve come across this little situation enough times now to make it worth a quick post here. It’s the story of the innovative SME, the minister, and the civil servant. And it’s not exactly a fairytale.

PM, DPM and Cab Sec

The story starts well enough: an enthusiastic entrepreneur develops something clever. They think it could have a great public policy application, so they or their well-connected guardian angel identify the relevant minister at an event. “Sounds great! Come and tell me more sometime” says the minister, over a glass of austerity orange juice. Or maybe the entrepreneur just phones up and gets lucky. Either way, the day comes, and they’re sitting in a Whitehall office, pitching their thing to the minister, his private secretary and the civil servant in the policy unit responsible.

“Well, this is great, we should do this,” says the minister “[Policy dude]: will you work with [Entrepreneur] to see how we can support this?”. Awkward nods and handshakes all round. Private Secretary sends round the email of action points. The Minister’s office move on to other things. Entrepreneur leaves the meeting with a spring in their step. Policy official bins the business cards.

Days pass, but the policy official doesn’t get in touch. Entrepreneur sends a ‘look forward to working with you!’ email. No reply. Tries calling, and gets some promises about a feasibility study. Months pass. In desperation, Entrepreneur emails the minister’s office, chasing progress. The system kicks into life, emails go back and forth, and eventually The Problem email gets sent. There are variations on The Problem: maybe it’s too expensive given current budgets or can’t be procured directly under Department rules. Maybe Department X is doing it already with Scheme Y. Maybe a pilot is in the field whose outcomes can’t be prejudiced. Maybe it’s already in hand within the forthcoming White Paper strategy. The idea dies with a whimper, not a bang: in a noose of noncommital emails in which nobody says ‘I’m out’ but everybody knows they are.

The lesson here is that ministers don’t spend money. They set priorities, they define targets, they set deadlines, they sign off on wordings and – to an extent – strategies. They front policy in Parliament and to the media. They reassure stakeholders, pacify opponents, negotiate with Treasury, visit pioneering projects, articulate the vision in speeches and articles, and chase progress on delivery. But they don’t spend money. Not really.

Ultimately, for something to be done or financially supported in central government, a civil servant has to do it. It’s odd to imagine it, but civil servants hold the budgets and decide what they get spent on (hopefully responding to the Minister’s priorities). They run the programmes, organise the procurement, choose the suppliers, manage the projects and report on the results. Very occasionally, ministers step into some of those decisions, but it’s rarer than you’d imagine as an SME more used to trading with powerful CEOs.

What does this mean for the innovative SME entrepreneur? Basically, find the civil servants who will have to work with you to deliver the idea, and be useful to them. That doesn’t mean hard sell or showering them with hospitality, which are almost entirely counterproductive. In the current climate, it’s quite possible that they can’t spend money with you at all, and procurement isn’t just an excuse: it’s a genuine barrier much of the time. But if they know what you do, in broad terms, and that you have a creative solution to problem X, that could slot brilliantly into next month’s White Paper, then you’ve already got a head start on the scenario above. It might be that they can work with you in another way: perhaps the recommendation of a ministerial visit, an invite to a high-level breakfast or trade mission, a reference to “innovative British firms such as Widgets Inc doing great work” in a big speech, or a case study in a strategy. They’ll know who does have money, which might be a quango or grants programme they can put you in touch with.

And that potential goodwill will hardly ever materialise if their first experience of you is the somewhat stressful experience of a Ministerial commission in an awkward meeting.

So, who you know does count. But it’s not always the guy in the Prius.

Photo credit: Number 10

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This is both eerily and precisely right, and just a bit wrong. I have lived through many cycles of the first three paragraphs of this post, but I think the next bit may go a bit too far the other way.

Find the right civil servant and work with them is really good advice – but don’t assume that that civil servant can deliver their department (and if your brilliant idea requires the whole of Whitehall to be reconfigured to accommodate it – and yes, I have had some of those – that’s probably a sign the idea needs a bit more work). Which means that there will be times when triggering a ministerial intervention is the smart move, just because that is the right time and right way to create some energy and momentum. Ideally – if you have found the right civil servant – that is itself part of the planned approach, but it doesn’t always work that way: the right civil servant is sometimes the wrong one; the issue gets caught up with and disappears into something semi-related; the right people don’t hear the right voices…

So yes, the guy in the Prius isn’t always the answer. But the speeding Prius may be the only vehicle with the speed and energy to get through the traffic jam. The trick is work out when and how to use it to best effect. Who you know does count, but you probably need to know a few people, not just one.

This brought the frustrating memories flooding back, of working agency-side. I think this type of encounter is true of any organisation, public or private.
Sadly, many people at all levels of organisations lack the confidence to say ‘no’ and justify their thinking. No-one likes to turn down an innovative or creative product.

Hi Steph

I always post with my own name but it is better if this is anonymous for all concerned.

I agree with the basics of what you say Steph but you make this sound so much easier than it is in reality.

The truth is, that entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes. Some are owners of well financed and established companies or rich, well connected individuals. These companies usually find it easy to get to meet civil servants at the right level.

But some are one man bands funding their innovations out of savings – complete unknowns- and for them, civil servants can seem very remote.

I’m sorry to say that personally, I found it very difficult to get to meet many of the civil servants I needed to, when I did, it took months and at the first meeting most civil servants didn’t give clear, concrete advice about what to do next or follow through afterwards. Here’s a bit about my story:

Three years ago, I left a safe and successful career to form an SME because I thought I had developed ‘something clever’.

I tried for the first six months repeatedly to contact civil servants and get them interested but it was next to impossible to even get a meeting with them. There were exceptions- people whose courtesy and willingness to listen stood out and you were one of them. However, these relationships started later.

After six months, I wrote in desperation to a senior minister (whose department I had repeatedly tried to meet with) at 4pm in the morning after another sleepless night of worry and dejection. Two months later came the reply and a month after that, the meeting you describe so perfectly. I could see the confusion on the face of the poor digital manager who had been summoned to the SPADs office and I felt both elated for myself and embarrassed because he didn’t know who I was. That person, I was later to find out, is a model civil servant, talented, dedicated and even more importantly, a great father to his kids. But I digress…

So we got a project with a government department, our first big break, and all as a result of that desperate approach to a minister. It was a free pilot and after a year we were still without revenue but we did our best and as you suggest, we tried to make ourselves useful. It finally led to paid projects, including one from you.

Only when we’d won several lots of high profile funding did it become a little easier to contact civil servants directly but even with a bit of a track record, it remained very difficult to get those first meetings. And with local government, practically impossible.

I remember one time last year, after 3 weeks away from my family, delaying my return to them for another 2 weeks to meet people at DCLG, Bham City Council and the office of the Digital Champion in early September. It was a terrible thing to do and a miserable time but I had been trying to get those meetings for months and for various reasons, they seemed crucial at the time. In one week at the start of September, all three meetings were cancelled. Two of them on the day they were due to be held, when I had got on the train for the two hour ride to London. Cancelled meetings after months of trying to make appointments seem to be the norm and these inflicted enormous emotional pain on me and my family, as well as damaging the business seriously (not only wasted time and money but misplaced hope and therefore strategic direction).

In fact, what finally led me to decide to go back to work (and with delicious irony, add to the tax payers burden) was the lead times in selling to the civil service. There might or might not be a market for what I do in the long term but there is no way I can support a family while waiting to see.

So, I’m sorry to say it is not quite so easy to find the right civil servants and make yourself useful as you suggest. I know a lot of good civil servants who read you blog Steph and I’m sorry if this makes uncomfortable reading. For me, trying to sell to government was an almost entirely negative experience- with exceptions I could count on the fingers of one hand- and it is something that is seriously holding back small innovative start ups.

Spending reviews notwithstanding, small (and new) supplier procurement needs to be seriously overhauled and civil servants could do with a little more insight into the terrible risks and hardships most entrepreneurs who approach them are going through.

Sorry, a rant I know but one that I have held back from for so long.

Hi Steph, with my Digital Engagement hat on you should answer Mark Prisk MP’s question about barriers for small businesses on LinkedIn – http://tinyurl.com/34u7nv3

From a civil service perspective I think ‘Who offers the best product/service’ often becomes ‘Who/what can I get hold of easily’. I hope that changes with the commitment to look into “More open frameworks or dynamic purchasing systems that do not lock suppliers out of contracts for up to 4 years”.

From my perspective that would defintitely make it easier to work with small suppliers/sole traders.