Business Link was a government-funded business advice and guidance service in England. It consisted of an online portal managed by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and a national telephone helpline.
The network of local/regional advisors (under the auspices of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) was axed in 2011. The online portal was replaced (along with Directgov) by the Gov.uk website on 17 October 2012, although the telephone helpline was retained.
This government programme is not to be confused with Business Link Magazine Group, a magazine publisher founded in 1988.
The concept for Business Link was established in December 1992 by Michael Heseltine, then President of the Board of Trade, when he was in charge of the Department of Trade and Industry and was initially referred to as "One Stop Shop".
At the time research for the Competitiveness Agenda led Government to believe small businesses were reluctant to invest in growth, that they failed to plan ahead and invest in training, that they were swamped with paperwork and relied on too few customers. These barriers to growth were the driving forces behind the need for a Business Link type solution.
The Enterprise Initiative ran from 1988 to 1994. This Government funded scheme was designed to encourage take of up external advice (consultancy) by small businesses. This initiative offered grant incentives for small businesses to use consultants. During this three-year period applications were received from 135,700 businesses. A Wren and Storey report concluded that £1,000 of grant assistance increased sales in a business by £30,000 and created a new job. An alternative study by Bennett and Robson estimated that take up of external advice trebled in small businesses with the incentive of grant provision. The Enterprise Initiative compounded support for intervention in the small business market place.
"I knew that there were very large numbers of small and medium sized enterprises out there who were running on the most rudimentary systems. If they had a problem, many of them didn't come from a background where they knew of anyone who could help or advise them. We wanted a team of people who could hold their hand, listen to their problems, have a working knowledge of what business is about, make suggestions, ask questions and be a friend in need." Heseltine
Despite being a Conservative sponsored initiative with apparent cross party support, the proposal for a Government funded One Stop Shop immediately hit political resistance.
Reflecting on this period in 2011 Heseltine stated that "you would have the left wing, which wouldn't have any real interest in effective management of the capitalist system. And you would have a very powerful element on the right wing of politics that would think it's a matter for the capitalist system to manage itself and government intervention, as they would call it, would be very unattractive. In truth, when I did it, I did comprehensive presentations to Conservative back benchers so that they could see what I believed an industrial policy was about. What they felt it was likely to be about were things like backing winners, or subsidising losers. Now I wasn't in favour of certainly the latter, but once I had done the presentations, I had no complaints."
Initially Heseltine approached the private sector to deliver a Business Link type service, specifically the British Chambers of Commerce. However, these meetings were unsuccessful. The reasons for this failure are disputed, however Heseltine stated that Chambers "should have set up this combined advisory service. They should have gone to Government and said, look you've got all these services, work with us and create the one stop shop. That's what they should have done. We did it for them. I think they regarded Business Link as an intrusion into their fiefdom. But the reason we created Business Link was because the Chambers weren't doing a good enough job. So there was tension there from the beginning."
The Department of Trade (DTI) predicted 54 Business Links would launch by the end of 1993. Progress was much slower than anticipated due to each bidder and proposal having to be evaluated by a National Assessment Panel. Achieving and maintaining the ISO 9001 Quality Management Standard and Investors in People was a mandatory requirement and each new organisation (Business Link Operator) who, if successful, was granted a three-year operating license. By the end of 1993 (during which time the government spent some £3m on the programme), only three branches of the service had been formed. The first opened in Leicester on 27 September 1993, with others following in Birmingham and Congleton. Halfway through 1994 only 21 Business Link Operators were in place.
At the end of 1996 the Government finally completed the national roll-out, establishing a total of 89 new Business Link partnerships overseeing 240 advice centres throughout England. Each week some 10,000 businesses in England were using the service.
The Business Link network initially employed 650 personal business advisors (PBAs), who worked primarily with businesses that employed between 10 and 249 people (Small and Medium Sized Enterprises). In February 1996 the Institute of Directors published a research paper declaring that their members were worried about the declared focus on growth business employing between 10 and 249 persons, because this might hurt smaller businesses and disadvantage start ups. However, contrary to popular belief at the time, businesses of all sizes were able to access Business Link services from the start. In November 1996, Richard Page, the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Energy, stated in the House of Commons that he was "disturbed to hear that the impression has been given that we are not there to help all businesses irrespective of size. My clear message is that Business Link is there to help any business man or woman, irrespective of size of company, because from little acorns grow the big oak trees".
This contradiction may be explained by the DTI directive requiring the individual new Business Link partnerships to generate at least 25% of their income from outside central Government within five years of launch, with the express advice that the most likely source would be the end consumers. As a result, the Business Links wanted their PBAs to work with growth-oriented businesses but this proved difficult to enforce and implement. PBAs were recruited from those who ran businesses. At first some were self-employed earning commission but this did not prove to be self-sustaining. Early business support in Scotland was called Scottish Business Shop. In Wales the name was Business Connect, and in Northern Ireland it was called the Local Enterprise Development Unit.
Business Link’s face-to-face service operated on a regional basis across England and was funded by the relevant regional development agencies (RDAs). The service used an IDBT (information, diagnostic, brokerage and transaction) model to advise businesses. Regional Business Links ran a variety of events and workshops on topical issues and general business skills.
This service was evaluated on a number of occasions
These assessments generally found positive impacts of Business Link on companies that received advice. However, some commentators worried about the cost of Business Link and the variability of advice. Some of the Business Links were chosen to provide more intensive support to fewer companies and these seemed to do comparatively well. Other Business Links showed less success with a 'spreading the jam thinly model'
The Business Link regional advisory service offered advice and support to businesses until November 2011. It was then abolished along with the regional development agencies (RDAs). The Business Link website and the national helpline continued to operate. Local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) will be expected to drive regional economic growth in the absence of the Business Link regional advisory service.
Various business link companies have engaged in direct competition with the private sector and with Governmental organisations such as ACAS. This includes the provision of employment law advice directly to businesses via cold calling, mail shots, emails and their websites. However, evaluations of Business Link showed that those taking advice from Business Link were thereafter more likely to work with private consultants as they learned about the benefits of advice
The Business Link website was launched in May 2004 as part of the Transformational Government programme (an initiative to consolidate UK government websites). In 2010 it emerged that the site cost £35m a year to build and operate (totaling £105m so far). It was administered by the private company Serco, on behalf of the government.
Information on the site came in the form of guides (pages of text information), interactive tools (in which businesses could get personalised information) and transactions (in which businesses could for example, calculate their VAT).
In 2010 the website launched an experimental wiki on some of the guides to allow visitors to add their own content. This experiment ran until the end of September 2010.
Despite the evidence that it was the advisers who contributed to the impact of Business Link, the Coalition government, elected in 2010, declared their intention to abolish the regional business adviser programs run by Business Link. New local enterprise partnerships would take their place but the national website and telephone service would continue.
The website was replaced by the Gov.uk public information website on 17 October 2012. Content was migrated to the new website, maintaining previous links to redirect users.
Business Link only operated in England. The remainder of the UK still has similar regional services:Business Gateway, Scotland
NIbusinessinfo.co.uk, Northern Ireland (run by Invest Northern Ireland)
Flexible Support for Business, Wales.
Regional providers used a rebranded version of the Business Link website. The Northern Ireland website has retained the vast majority of the Business Link website information.
Most OECD countries provide similar services although they may organise them differently. Examples are the SBDC in the USA and ALMI in Sweden.