This autumn will see a change of direction at the Department of Trade and Industry. But, like an oil tanker changing course, the shift has taken a while to effect and it will be some time before further changes become evident. Ministers and officials alike now recognise that they have spent too much time listening to the needs of big business - by definition a better resourced, more co-ordinated pressure group - and not enough listening to smaller companies and individual entrepreneurs. 'Think small first' is the new mantra to be heard up and down the corridors at the DTI's Westminster HQ. What amounts to a massive cultural shift is being imposed from the top down. Trade secretary Stephen Byers is dragging his civil servants - if not kicking and screaming, then at least muttering uncomfortably - around to his way of thinking. The new philosophy will be reflected across Byers' brief - from the hoary old chestnut of company law to the brave new world of e-commerce. For this to work, the secretary of state recognises that the traditional narrow concept of a Whitehall department concentrating on its own interests has to be consigned to the past. The Small Business Service is the first fruit of this attempt to create units that cut across Whitehall departments in the interests of focusing on the end-user. Byers hopes it won't be the last. 'On the ground people don't look at it in terms of "this is the DTI". For them this is government, so one of the things we have really been working hard on is how we can develop this cross-cutting approach,' he says. 'There are big issues there and the Small Business Service is going to be another example of how we can cut across initiatives within this department and involve other departments to offer a better service for small businesses.' Whitehall is notorious for its intransigence and Byers recognises it will not be easy. 'It has to permeate the whole Whitehall culture, but what struck me is there is now a real willingness among civil servants to work across departments and government as well,' he says. 'I think we are beginning to reflect the service delivery approach that has been taken in business for years. But we are also about delivering a service - that is what government is really about. Whether it is health, education or small business, it's what we can deliver that is important.' Within the DTI, Byers has encouraged groups of civil servants to get together outside their sections to discuss initiatives while, more widely, civil service chief Sir Richard Wilson is looking at ways in which the cross-cutting approach can be developed across Whitehall. Byers' attitude has already won him support outside the closed world of Whitehall. 'Civil servants may have a bit of difficulty keeping up with him,' says Baker Tilly partner Teresa Graham, a member of the government's Better Regulation Task Force. 'It's good news for business that he is ahead of the civil service where the normal pace is dead slow to static.' This new talk of customer-focus reflects a growing acknowledgement within the government that red tape is in danger of strangling small businesses: from the working-time directive to the working families tax credit, corporation tax self-assessment to the minimum wage, small and medium-sized companies are becoming increasingly vocal in their complaints about the tide of regulation that they find washing over them. Only last week the trade and industry select committee attacked the government's small-business policy for unleashing 'an excess of loosely connected and apparently uncoordinated policy initiatives shooting off in all directions, generating noise and interest, but not commensurate light'. Byers tacitly acknowledges that too little account has been taken of the impact of bureaucracy on this important constituency. 'I hope the cross-cutting approach will deliver a far better level of support for small business and ensure that if we have to introduce regulations it is done in a way that is sensitive and sympathetic to their needs,' he says. 'Where the jobs are being created is actually among the small business sector. What we have to do in the UK is make sure that we don't do anything that actually restricts the growth of small businesses. 'It's a real challenge for this department as we have exceptionally good links and relationships with the big companies. We don't have such a good relationship with the small business sector. In practical terms it's very difficult.' 'Think small first' does not stop there. It will also apply to the government's company law review. 'If you look at the whole area of company law it's all based on the big publicly quoted company - it's the BP Amocos of this world and it's a structure for them,' says Byers. 'But of course the bulk of companies are very small. They are not publicly quoted and they probably only have one or two shareholders. Why should they go through exactly the same process as BP Amoco? 'We should have a system that is simple and easy for the small company. If you have a big company that wants to be quoted on the Stock Exchange then they add on to that.' In recent months Byers has fashioned himself as a champion of consumers, leading the battle against rip-off Britain. But he is no less passionate about the e-commerce revolution, though he freely acknowledges a cynical past. He wants government and business to do more to promote this 'crucial' element of the knowledge revolution. 'If companies are going to be successful, then e-commerce is going to be key to that success,' says Byers. 'People are just not going to be able to ignore it.' As secretary of state for trade and industry, Byers sees his role as establishing a virtuous circle of prosperous businesses that generate tax revenues that are used to pay for good public services that benefit everybody. 'One of the key things I've been trying to do is create a culture of enterprise where people feel business is something that is good. 'Even better are businesses that prosper and create wealth,' he says. To achieve that he wants to create effective company rescue mechanisms and identify responsible risk takers. 'The stigma of failure is very important,' he argues, pointing to the draft insolvency bill and corporate rescue consultation paper as evidence that he is willing to put his money where his mouth is. To those who have worked with, for or against Byers, this modern, outward-focused attitude should come as no surprise. He is too accomplished to be drawn on what November's Queen's speech will mean for his autumn workload and too professional to give away the department's thinking on key consultation papers. If last week's Cabinet reshuffle was about promoting more high-flying Blairites, the new ministers were only following a path that he had already trodden. A moderniser in the prime minister's own mould, Byers' rise has been swift. Trade secretary since December last year he replaced the then-disgraced Peter Mandelson in the wake of that home loan scandal. Byers then moved to the DTI from the Treasury where he was seen as an effective chief secretary. Before that the former law lecturer and local government stalwart was school standards minister. Even then he had been marked out for bigger things and was asked to chair the prime minister's much-vaunted social exclusion unit - the first of the cross-cutting initiatives about which he now evangelises. After nearly a year in the job, Byers finds his revolution gaining momentum. Now he has to ensure that when he talks about new methods of government that work better for the customer - whether corporate or consumer - they actually do so. The most immediate test will be the Small Business Service. If it succeeds in reducing the burden of regulation on that hard-pressed sector, Byers will have pulled off quite a trick. If it doesn't work, there will be plenty of people - civil servants persuaded to work in 'new' ways, the accountancy profession hoping for key reforms in the fields of company law and insolvency, to say nothing of small business people themselves - who may be unwilling to give him a second chance. The jury is still out on Stephen Byers. That is the overwhelming message of finance directors of small and medium-sized businesses, according to a special Accountancy Age Big Question this week. Asked whether the secretary of state is doing a good job for British businesses, just 16% of respondents to the survey, conducted by Reed Accountancy Personnel, said 'yes', 21% said 'no' but the majority of financial directors - 63% - described themselves as 'neutral'. One FD said Byers cut an anonymous figure while another questioned his commitment to small business. 'The only time you see Stephen Byers is when a large takeover or merger has occurred,' he said. Others described him as 'committed', though most said it was too early to deliver a judgement. 'On balance I believe Stephen Byers is doing a good job for British business,' said one FD. 'He's scoring more pluses than minuses in my book.' STEPHEN BYERS ON ... ... E-COMMERCE 'I'm a convert to e-commerce myself. I was terribly cynical about the whole thing at first. But as soon as you realise what can be done and what you need to do, there really is no choice.' ... INSOLVENCY REFORM 'I'm quite keen that we try to identify responsible risk-takers if we can, but come down hard on those that exploit their creditors.' ... DIRECTORS' PAY 'I don't think we are in the business of controlling the levels of directors' pay. The tax regime is the area where it is appropriate to deal with that.' ... REGULATION OF THE PROFESSION 'I think the profession would welcome a period allowing the changes to bed down and to move forward. I think there is now a broad acceptance of the changes that we have introduced.' ... INTERNATIONAL ACCOUNTING STANDARDS 'There needs to be transparency and there needs to be parity. We are not going to rush. We are going to talk to people and we are going to get it right.' ... THE COMPANY LAW REVIEW 'It's certainly something that we'll spend quite a lot of time on over the next few months as we restructure the whole area of company law so it is much more sympathetic to the needs of small business.'
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