Interviews

The inside scoop on Emma Jones and her new government business role

10 min read

21 July 2016

Former editor

When Theresa May took a chainsaw to her predecessor’s cabinet, bringing about a reshuffle not seen in years, a name better known in the entrepreneurial world snuck in – someone now responsible for helping reach a target of £1 in every £3 of government spending being with small businesses.

Emma Jones isn’t technically in the government, she’s officially the new small business Crown representative. Also, she’s been in the job for a month – the announcement just coincided with May’s bloodbath. For those of you who are not aware of what the Crown Commercial Service does, it’s essentially tasked with bringing together policy, advice and direct buying – providing commercial services to the public sector and saving money for the taxpayer.

As the new Crown representative for SMEs, Jones will be continuing with much of the work she’s been doing with her own business – Enterprise Nation – chiefly encouraging government to spend more with small businesses and exposing this demographic to the benefits of bidding for public sector contracts.

Jones, an entrepreneur herself, was approached by Matthew Hancock, freshly anointed the position as minister of state responsible for digital policy at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. She’s known Hancock for some time now, partly because of his previous role as minister of state for business and enterprise under former business secretary Vince Cable.

She explained to Real Business that a search for a new SME representative began at the turn of 2016, and Hancock personally asked her to apply when he spoke at an Enterprise Nation event. First rebuffing the minister because of her day job, Jones was reassured that it was a “manageable” one day a week role – and so applied.

“I heard in March I’d been shortlisted for interview, which was my first in 20 years. There were three civil servants and Simon Devonshire [entrepreneur-in-residence at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS)], and I set out what I would do in the job.

“A few months went by before I got a note saying the minister would like to see me and that I had the job – I said yes on 28 May. June was then spent meeting representatives from the Crown, and working on the focus of my role.”

Jones will be zeroing in on supporting the government’s target of making sure £1 in every £3 it spends by 2020 is with British small businesses. The powers that be, Jones believes, are doing a “huge amount” to make this a reality, and it’s now her job to assist in any way she can.

The entrepreneur, and champion of British small businesses, will be both working with government buyers to explain the virtues of purchasing from small firms and banging the drum to convince these enterprise leaders that selling to the government is a good thing. She has first-hand experience of both winning and losing public sector contract bids, and has some clear ideas regarding how the process can be improved and streamlined.

The 33 per cent of government spending target has already been revised up by Hancock, from Francis Maude and Lord Young’s initial 27 per cent goal. Jones and the government have some work to do if it’s going to get to a third from its current level of 27 per cent.

However, before we got on to the task at hand for Jones, Real Business wanted to know what her take on the breakup of BIS was. As well as putting together a new-look cabinet, hiring Boris Johnson as foreign secretary and creating a minister specifically charged with Brexit, the fourth prime minister of this centruy decided the department looking after economic growth would be more effective sliced up and portioned off to other departments.

“I think what is happening is that entrepreneur and small business promotion is going across all departments,” she explained.

“Last week I went to a meeting of what are called ‘SME champions’ – people across all departments all focussed on this procurement issue. It’s a good thing that this goes across all of government and if we do have a new small business minister, I don’t know if BIS is their natural home.”

Former small business minister Anna Soubry, who was only in the job for just over a year, was one of those jettisoned by May. We’ve yet to learn whether the space will be filled, but all evidence points to the end of a ministerial role dedicated to supporting small enterprise.

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Jones is a firm believer in letting ministers closest to an issue take charge on an enterprise front, and cited the example of the Great British Food Unit at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) – which is focussed on the promotion of British made and cultivated food.

“On the day of the reshuffle I was speaking with lots of people in government and one point I made to them was that, whether it’s a Budget announcement or cabinet reshuffle, I always get the question of what more the government could be doing for businesses,” she said.

“It’s not about that, it’s about what less they could be doing. The role of government, when supporting entrepreneurship, should be building confidence in the economy, getting infrastructure right and shining the media spotlight on things. Apart from that, the government shouldn’t be using a heavy hand in other things.”

Jones has a three-pronged plan of attack to facilitate more small business government spending. First up is making the process simpler. Having filled out applications herself, she knows all about the mandatory information form that must be completed each and every time and thinks technology can help in either an auto-complete or vetting capacity to tick that box and ensure a business owner never has to do it again. Next on her agenda is promotion of the opportunity to sell to government. “We are doing a programme of webinars where government representatives will talk about the products they are looking to buy from small businesses – after all, there are £15bn worth of contracts up for grabs,” she revealed. The third element centres on innovation, creating a system where procurement executives can get exposure to new technologies that they might not even know they need, let alone be issuing tender requests for.

The appointment of Jones marks an exciting juncture for the Crown Commercial Service as it’s the first time it has recruited a small business owner as an SME representative. Hancock was firm in his belief that this was the best way forward, a way for the government to learn first hand from someone who has been there, done it, and got the t-shirt.

“If you are a small business owner who has been through the process, you will be best placed to advise on how to do it differently,” Jones added. “For two years Enterprise Nation have been banging the drum about the procurement opportunity, we were our own mystery shopper. Hopefully what the government saw is that if they give the job to me, I’ll keep going with what I’ve been doing already.”

While it seems we’ve come to the end of David Cameron’s tendency to recruit glitzy female business tsars, such as Michelle Mone, Karren Brady and Tamara Mellon, it seems we now have an entrepreneur involved who is well versed in the trials and tribulations of small business creation and growth. Jones has given herself an initial 12-month period to see what can be achieved, so watch this space.

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