In the same way that government policies directly affect companies’s ability to trade successfully, council initiatives and services can have a big impact on local business performance. By being sympathetic and supportive, councils can help companies flourish, generating wealth and employment for the area. But how can local authorities become more business-friendly? This is a question that think tank and lobbying body London Councils wanted answered on behalf of the 33 local boroughs across the UK capital that it represents.
We were commissioned by London Councils to undertake research on how councils could be made more business-friendly, explains Vivien Niblett , senior consultant at Shared Intelligence. To find out, we undertook a programme of interviews covering a wide range of council-business interactions.
Rather than focusing on direct business support, such as grants and business rates, the research examined how the variety of different services that a council provides from gaining a street trading license to waste collection could be made to help businesses more.
Two key groups were studied, says Niblett: businesses of any size across London and local authorities. The council officers we interviewed were primarily in economic development, as they were most likely to have the greatest appreciation of the needs of local businesses. Informing our methods and choice of sample groups was the underlying aim to get the most constructive and insightful responses as possible.
The first stage of research began with a short online survey of council officers to collate some initial key facts. It covered general questions, such as how business-friendly is your council, and where does this lie in your current list of priorities? Shared Intelligence also requested examples of any work the councils had done to become more business-friendly, while securing the officers’ agreement to participate further in the survey.
More in-depth follow-up interviews were then carried out with a select group of local authority officers chosen from respondents to the online survey. The aim was to build on the initial discussion, digging deeper into existing initiatives, the motivations behind them and the challenges faced.
This enabled us to understand what the business-friendly council agenda meant on the ground, and to uncover any existing good practice, explains Niblett.
In parallel with the local authority research, Shared Intelligence set up a number of small workshops with a variety of businesses from across London.
We did five of these with companies at different stages of thinking, from those just starting to consider how councils could support them to those with more experience, such as Chambers of Commerce, which had had a lot of contact with their local authorities, says Niblett.
Being respectful of the time pressures on businesses, she adds, we made sure these were quite short discussions of around 30 minutes and, where possible, the workshops were incorporated into meetings that had already been planned.
The workshops were based around three or four key questions, which were left open for general discussion, and they generated a variety of interesting views.
Based on the research, an initial short presentation was prepared consisting of a series of key pointers that summed up the opportunities and challenges identified. This was delivered to a group of local authority officers recruited through London Councils, followed by an open discussion to help identify the most useful and practical findings. The aim was to pin down those initiatives that would be more relevant on the ground and prioritise key actions.
The results of the council and business research, steered by the officers workshop, were then presented to London Councils in a written report. This ensured the final document was more solid, relevant and informed.
We offered a range of recommendations on how the council-business relationship could be improved, says Niblett. These included boosting communication and responsiveness by making information for businesses more easily accessible online; joining up contacts across the council by implementing client relationship management systems; and improving the knowledge and skills of frontline staff to enable them to handle business enquiries more quickly and effectively.
Shared Intelligence also identified greater opportunities for local businesses to have more influence and a stronger voice. These included involving companies in local area forums and intensifying councillors’ contact with businesses. Furthermore, councils were urged to take account of whether specific services were or were not business-friendly, and to use intermediaries, such as Chambers of Commerce, to help increase engagement with local companies.
The report provided a good basis for existing and future research, explains Niblett, while creating a strong platform for further discussion, in terms of what actions should be prioritised to make London’s 33 councils more supportive and sympathetic to local businesses.
Client: London Councils