It’s been a busy week for the CBI. At our annual conference on Monday, 1400 business people from all corners of the UK heard from the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems, a former European PM, an Archbishop, and a range of business leaders from across the economy, representing big, medium and small firms, market incumbents and new players. We celebrated business success – from growing firms breaking into new markets and supporting their communities, to our world-leading film and creative industry.
And we put out some big, bold, fresh ideas for improving living standards to ensure growth works for everyone: more free childcare; lower employee National Insurance contributions; a business-focus on raising productivity to boost pay; better routes into higher-skilled better-paid work; and measures to ensure young people don’t fall behind in school.
At the CBI, we’re constantly evolving the way we work to keep us at the forefront of business lobbying. Only a few years ago, the UK faced unprecedented challenges: a mounting deficit, increasing national debt, high unemployment, low growth, falling exports and sliding productivity. There was – and remains – a trust deficit between the public and politicians, and between the public and business.
As businesses, employers and taxpayers, we share these challenges and need to play a part in solving them. We have to be constructive and solutions-focused, whether that’s about getting shovels in the ground to build new roads and rail links, or helping the Government devise new cost– effective ways to deliver services for people. To get there, we have to earn the confidence of the public in our ability to boost growth, jobs and prosperity for everyone.
This is no mean feat. And to achieve it, we need to speak with a clear, representative voice, reflecting the whole of our membership base, which is made up mainly of small and medium-sized companies.
That’s why we have run more than 70 ‘M Clubs’ for the UK’s thriving medium-sized challenger companies around the country, helping them learn from each other about planning for growth, embedding innovation, collaborating to win in new markets, succession planning and so on.
More than 700 business leaders have benefitted from this initiative and they play a huge role in our policy development and lobbying. At the same time, we help them sell their products and services overseas. That’s why, working with UKTI, we ran the first ever trade missions specifically for medium-sized growing firms, starting in Turkey, and branching out to Russia and Brazil.
Businesses need to reflect the communities they serve. Diversity is a core part of this. For our part, the CBI’s management board is now more than 50% female and we have set ambitious targets for all our policy groups and councils to be more diverse than ever before. We’ve backed Lord Davies’ women on boards agenda for businesses to set their own meaningful targets to close the gender pay gap.
But this alone is not enough. We’ve put in place a leadership programme to develop the next generation of business leaders to understand more about how they can engage with government and act as responsible advocates for the business community – and 60% of this year’s cohort is female.
We also recognise that we have to do more to win back the public’s trust in business. Only around half of people believe business makes a positive contribution to society and that’s not good enough. That’s why we are running the Great Business Debate, our first ever public-facing campaign to set out the good business does for society, and focus on what we can do better.
Ultimately, our credibility rests on the strength of our ideas and the agreement of our diverse membership base. Our members push us to be bold and practical in making the case for business and fighting for its corner. On Europe, for example, we want to see reform while remaining members of the world’s largest single market and trading bloc. Not everyone agrees but we don’t shy away from the tough arguments.
And we want to help government continue to deliver vital public services in an age of austerity. Cuts alone will lead to poor quality services, so we are instrumental in calling for big, transformational change, such as moving all public services online by default, helping more people to be treated in their homes. And we’ve helped government manage a diverse market of cost-efficient suppliers more effectively. That’s why we’ve set up a new Public Services Network to connect central and local government elected representatives and officials with business people from all backgrounds, and produced a practical toolkit so markets work for people and taxpayers. Business will have an even bigger role to play in delivering the services of the future – and we want to be even more transparent with government, as a customer, and with the people who use its services. That’s why we have pushed government much further on opening up contracts as well as opening up markets.
We don’t pretend to get everything right. But the CBI and other business representative organisations are at the cutting edge of business thinking on how to work with government to drive growth that works for everyone. We would of course be happy to work with Sean Worth and the Westminster Policy Institute to spread good practice even further.
Katja Hall is deputy director-general at the CBI. Follow her on twitter at @CBIKatja.
(This article first appeared on Public Affairs News website on 14 November 2014)