A hoary old joke that wanders around business circles goes something like this…
Q: “What is the definition of a contradiction in terms?”
A: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”
Jokes like this serve to help us laugh at truths that are otherwise rather painful.
The relationship between government and business is usually adversarial. In particular,
entrepreneurs are the natural prey of bureaucrats.
Governments, however, have come to the reluctant and half-hearted conclusion that
they still need businesses, in the same way lions need wildebeest. Most have policies
intended to “encourage” enterprise.
Needless to say, they go about this is a bureaucratic way that defeats its own object.
In countries like the UK, entrepreneurs are bombarded with invitations from government
departments – free advice, free seminars, even free buffets.
Most entrepreneurs are rightly suspicious of these freebies. They could be the commercial
equivalent of those “sting” operations in which the police write to absconded criminals,
telling them they have won a prize, then arrest them when they turn up to collect
So few entrepreneurs take the bureaucrats up on their offers. The entrepreneurs
have learnt by bitter experience that the best strategy when dealing with government
is to keep as low a profile as possible.
The offer of free advice is particularly suspicious. Information is a one-way flow,
but worthwhile advice depends on a two-way exchange of information. No entrepreneur
in his right mind will offer any government agency any more information about his
business than is absolutely necessary.
Realising this – and that entrepreneurs are, in any case, hardly likely to value
business advice from salaried bureaucrats – most governments offer advice through
supposedly autonomous advice centres. These usually proclaim that they are run by
people with “real business experience”.
Nevertheless, the basic conflict of interest remains. The priority of government
is the filling in of the right forms, while the priority of business is business.
Moreover, even an ethical and law-abiding business may have difficulty in reconciling
its best interests with the prevailing politicians’ views on employment practices
and the like. No government, for example, is going to advise a business to move
all its manufacturing to China because it is easier to hire and fire there. Yet
that is often precisely what the business needs to do if it is to survive.
At this point, those working for advice centres and the like might protest angrily,
pointing to codes of conduct and pledges of integrity, and stressing their independence.
It would be wrong to call them liars, for they may be sincere, but the plain fact
is that any organisation which displays government logos on its notepaper or its
premises almost certainly depends on government funding. That gives it a vested
interest in serving the government’s objectives, and no interest at all in serving
the objectives of the naïve businessman who asks it for the free advice it offers
and pays nothing.
As ever in business, money talks – and, in this case, may also listen patiently
to an entrepreneur being too open and honest about his business.
The wildebeest should be careful when the lion offers advice.
© Agincourt Productions