28 January 2016 | By Ben Digby Insight

What's behind the new exports drive?

Insight: Ben Digby, head of international, CBI

Hitting the government's target to double exports by 2020 will be a "big stretch", so a lot depends on the new measures announced 

Last week, trade minister Francis Maude publicly acknowledged what civil servants have privately been saying for some time: that meeting the government’s target to double exports to £1trn by 2020 would be a “big stretch”. The CBI has recently estimated that the target is likely to be missed by about £300bn. So what should businesses make of the new measures announced by UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) to support UK exporters?

Three things stood out for me:

1. The Maude agenda is well and truly underway

Francis Maude’s appointment as trade minister in May last year was greeted with some surprise by business. Having a politician in charge of the trade brief was a departure from the form guide – Maude was preceded by business big hitters Ian Livingston and Stephen Green, supported by chief executives at UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) largely drawn from within the civil service.

This arrangement has been turned on its head with a political Minister (albeit with significant business experience) now supported by a chief executive drawn from business – Dr Catherine Raines – who built her career in the private sector before her most recent role running UKTI in China.

Reading Ian Livingston’s reflections on his tenure as trade minister in a recent interview for the Institute for Government, I was left thinking that this set up – a  political minister who can navigate Whitehall and a UKTI CEO who understands business – probably provides a more solid foundation for success. That must surely be the case in the context of the changes announced last week, which will involve ministers across Whitehall taking ownership for the government’s export ambitions.

If Maude is successful this could genuinely lead to more joined-up government, which is something business has been calling for for some time.

2. UKTI is getting digital

Lord Maude also brings to UKTI the experience of overseeing the development of the Government Digital Service (GDS) during the last parliament – and digital, in all its guises, is not something governments tend to do very well.

The use of digital at UKTI has improved significantly in recent years – especially through the development of a better website and more webinar content on overseas business opportunities. But the commitment to creating a single online resource to access government export support is welcome.

This should contain information about the full spectrum of support government offers, from trade missions and market opportunities, to details of financing and country risk information. Encouragingly it seems government is recruiting the right people to set this up as a colleague at Tech City mentioned to me just last week that there is extra competition for talent – and industry competitive salaries on offer.

3. The hardest test is yet to come

Of course what’s important to business is the support that’s on offer, not the ins and outs of changes in Whitehall.

As always with government announcements, the devil will be in the delivery. For these changes to be a success UKTI will need to tell businesses what they mean and make sure exporters are aware of the new products and services on offer. This hasn’t always been done well in the past.