Complaints about the DTI's Business Link project abound.
Business Link, set up by the DTI as a one-stop shop to support growing businesses, has had to weather some sharp criticism from its users. Three years on since it was set up, have perceptions of the troubled DTI project improved?
Business Link does, without doubt, benefit some businesses. One of the recognised success stories is Wigan Business Link, a partner in the town's Chamber of Commerce, Technology & Enterprise. A typical endorsement comes from Barry Lowe, director of electronics firm Comtech. 'I take my hat off to them,' he says. Lowe's adviser helped the company apply (and get) a Royal Society of Arts (RSA) grant and a DTI Innovations grant. 'He put everything in place for us, made sure we produced the right information and got people talking to each other. Everything he promised, he delivered. I couldn't really fault him.'
Others are less convinced. Martin Riley, managing director of Gunn Construction in Barnstaple, has never seen the need to use his local Business Link (North Devon). 'I've not seen anything of any value to us. None of the seminars appear to be of any relevance to us. We don't export and we're not short of work.' Another businessman, who wants to remain anonymous, cites duplication between the Business Link network and other DTI projects.
'There's overlap in some areas and holes in others,' he says. 'They say they can help you do anything - except what you're asking them about.'
Business Link offices are meant to target business with potential for growth. So a perfect company for the Business Link profile, one would think, is Packaging Automation in Knutsford. The company is an exporting manufacturer which has doubled turnover to £36 million in three years and recruits continuously. General manager Carol Royle is unimpressed by Business Link. 'We looked at it, but weren't enamoured. In fact we rather steer away from it. When a personal business adviser tells you that he used to run his own business until it went bust, that's not a promising start.'
Brian McCann, a consultant with accountancy firm KPMG, points out that there are pockets of good practice within the national network; but as with most things, it is the individuals within the organisation that make the difference locally.
'Where you get a strong chief executive or really good personal business advisers, you will find businesses getting valuable support. I try to find one good person within each office and give my clients personal referrals,' he says.
Managing director of Wynnwith, Andrew Pendlebury, concurs. It is the Business Link's new boss, Ermine Evans, who gives Pendlebury hope. 'When I met the chief executive, I was impressed. She's obviously a high-flier and has lots of plans to turn Business Link Woking into the proactive organisation it's meant to be.'
One ongoing problem is the lack of a national model for Business Link - each one is established locally, supposedly to suit local circumstances. The effect is that the marketing message is confused - or non-existent. For example, the man on the enquiries desk at the Government's Central Office of Information in London had never heard of Business Link. To the statement that it is a DTI initiative, he replied tartly: 'Well, they haven't told us about it.'.