As I See It: Terry Murden
There have been many iterations of Scottish Enterprise over the nearly 30 years since it was created, and each time it has been forced to grapple with a political agenda that has not always made life easy for those running it.
After the difficulties that Jack Perry faced trying to fend off regular assaults on the agency’s performance and very existence it was no surprise that his successor Lena Wilson kept well under the radar. We’ll probably never know whether the low profile was her own choosing or one imposed on her, but it certainly reduced the number of lurid headlines.
Steve Dunlop has arrived from Scottish Canals claiming earlier this year that he suffers from ‘imposter syndrome’, and so has something to prove to himself as well as everyone else that he can steer Scottish Enterprise through choppy political waters.
He has been speaking to the media about his strategy and it has to be said that it sounds like his Holyrood paymasters have not so much asked for his ideas, but have handed him a set of instructions on how to build an economy.
So far, so familiar. And not entirely unreasonable. SE, after all, is tasked with fulfilling government objectives. It’s just that sometimes political will and economic reality don’t always sit comfortably together.
The agenda has been broadened from a focus on backing a select number of sectors and high growth firms to taking in those that are currently “unsighted”, as he put it. These are the superstars currently hidden in the country’s “cold spots” – presumably the schemes, small towns and rural areas where budding entrepreneurs are waiting for SE to call.
Just how this “hunting and gathering” of supposedly latent talent will work is unclear. The agency used to have a network of relatively big budget local enterprise companies (LECs). Dunlop pointed out that it still has 11 offices, but they are much smaller and asking them to go scouting for talent seems like a big ask.
The LECs were far from perfect, often sidetracked into funding projects that had Perry tearing his hair out, but they at least had a high profile. Business Gateway – which Perry tried and failed to retain as part of SE – has stepped into the breach, though it saw its budget cut after being hived off as a sop to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and it is not everyone’s cup of tea, with companies claiming they have to fit a narrow criteria in order to get help.
A change of direction has been expected and while “growth” remains the key target, the means towards it must now be “inclusive”, one of the SNP’s big themes, and one that immediately puts a strain on the budget and the direction of travel. This might, at least in part, be a response to feedback from the micro and small business owners who feel Scottish Enterprise ignores them. It was noticeable that SE said in its latest bulletin on regional selective assistance that more grant support was being aimed at indigenous firms.
The risk is that extending the search more widely won’t necessarily uncover the stars of the future. Indeed, it risks leaving the stand-out superstars under-funded and lacking in the attention they need.
Jamie Coleman, who set up the Codebase tech incubator in Edinburgh, was critical of public sector funding of firms which took a scattergun approach in the hope of hitting a few targets. He wanted the money handed to a small number of private equity and VC specialists who would identify those who would make best use of it.
This was essentially SE’s most recent approach: focusing on likely winners rather than spending too much resource on big-priced also-rans. It was a response to a previous catch-all policy that had been deemed to be too woolly and ineffective. In came the high growth unit which became a hit, while SE’s VC division, which had been instrumental in kickstarting some of the country’s top achievers, was eventually hived off as Scottish Equity Partners, arguably SE’s biggest single success in three decades.
The Dunlop strategy takes us back to making sure everyone gets a look in. It is laudable but will stretch current resources. If he can pull it off we’ll all be cheering. But it is a gamble.