New online tools could help a greater proportion of UK businesses offer their services overseas, director at recently created department claims
The Department for International was created last year – at a cost of £1.4m – following the Brexit vote Credit: DIT
A top official at the Department for International Trade has said “pioneering” work in digital will help boost the low number of British exporters, but he also conceded that access to data in this area was “not ideal”.
Paul McComb, transition programme director at the Department for International Trade, told MPs that new online tools will help increase the number of British businesses trading overseas, which has remained stubbornly at around 11% for more than a decade.
But, when questioned by the International Trade Committee on the department’s support for exports and investment, he admitted that DIT’s work in this area is hampered by the patchy nature of data on British exporters, which cannot easily be broken down by sector.
DIT was created last year following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, and tasked with drawing up new international trade agreements and a trade and investment policy for Britain. It brought together the functions of the former UK Trade & Investment, UK Export Finance and Whitehall’s since-bolstered trade policy function, in a “machinery of government change” that McComb confirmed had cost £1.4m.
McComb, who joined UKTI as managing director of strategy in 2016 before it was absorbed by DIT, said the department’s investment in digital was “really quite pioneering” and that good progress had been made.
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“Digital has transformed other bits of government, it’s transformed other industries,” he said, adding that DIT was looking at how it can use technology to connect British companies with overseas export opportunities.
He told MPs that DIT had invested £6.3m in 2016-17 and will be spending a further £4.5m in 2017-18.
Government used to have 19 separate websites all claiming to provide export advice and not all of them were up-to-date. But in November 2016 DIT launched great.gov.uk, which has brought all that advice together in one place.
Another part of the department’s digital offering will be about improving segmentation, so that products and services can be better targeted at the right businesses.
Companies will be asked to register their interest online in becoming overseas exporters, and can then use the “export readiness assessment” – an online tool.
Responding to a question about whether this shift to online services will meet business needs, McComb said: “It’s genuinely too early to declare any kind of victory in this space.
“What we haven’t done is thrown the kitchen sink at this and said, ‘It’s digital and we’re laying off everyone who did face-to-face’. We’ve kept both going.”
He also said that the number of British businesses that export overseas – which “has been stubborn” at around the 11% mark for the past 10 to 15 years – cannot easily be broken down by sector.
“The data isn’t automatically served up like that,” he said. “This is certainly one of the things that as a department we want to make serious inroads in – there’s a lot of analysis, there’s a lot of sample data, but there’s not a great deal of caseload data where you can go and reach in and say, ‘Show me companies who are exporting around the world on this sector’.
“It’s certainly not ideal today and I would acknowledge that.”
There are proposals for DIT to take on powers to use some HMRC customs data, and McComb said he hopes the department’s new digital services will also be a rich source of data.
“All Whitehall departments are just data junkies, they do want this information to underpin and drive and shape strategy,” he said, adding, however, that the additional burden placed on businesses was also a factor.
Asked about the department’s use of private sector contractors, McComb said DIT was “quite a leveraged organisation” and had contracts worth £195m with organisations such as British Chambers of Commerce and EY.
The department is able to access external expertise at short notice, and recently it has particularly invested in commercial experts to help it negotiate better value contracts, he added.