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Want More for Less, Davos Man? Our World Is Your Oyster

Posted: 23/01/2013 23:00

As the global elite don snow boots for Davos, those of us tramping through the slush at home will wonder 'what's Davos got to do with me?' I say two things: 1) the UK has always been a great trading nation and, 2) the UK is a modern day cultural superpower. We're up to our boot-tops in the global economy and our language, education system and creativity are in massive demand to drive global growth and prosperity.

And we all have a stake in that. Because what our politicians and business leaders are discussing on our behalf is a near universal need to tighten our belts. Underpinning many conversations at Davos will be the premise that, when it comes to public services, we all need to get used to more tax for less service before our economies will recover. As Davos-bound Unilever CEO Paul Polman put it vividly in a recent interview, "individuals have to contribute more to get less, otherwise you don't get there."

It's true that paying more for less is a fact of life in many cases - pensions, healthcare and chocolate bars to name just three. But, when we look out into the world, we can see that there are other ways. Many of the UK's cultural and educational institutions look internationally and take an entrepreneurial approach. There are paying customers, governments, businesses all of whom want what the UK has - a world class cultural and education sector.

I confidently predict that, even if you shut down every university, museum and cultural institution in the UK for a year and sent them out into the world, they would barely scratch the surface of the international demand for UK culture and education - from India, Brazil, the Gulf, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and many more.

But if the UK's great public service institutions do continue to connect with the world despite recession and cuts at home and, when the UK's great brands like the Premier League, Burberry, Jaguar, and Vodafone partner with them - as they do with us - on these international opportunities, there is no reason why the UK taxpayer shouldn't sometimes expect to get more for less. Because, by engaging overseas, we improve ourselves and our assets, open new markets and bring more income and innovation home.

At the British Council we work around the world, using UK education, the arts and the English language to create opportunities for the UK. Three years ago, our government grant accounted for a third of our total income - now it's about a quarter.

Despite this cut in core funding - and because we're international to our core - we're confident that we can continue to achieve more for the UK as an 'Entrepreneurial Public Service'.

This means creating more opportunity for the UK by further increasing the probability that, if you get off a plane, you'll meet someone who speaks English, has studied in or with the UK and is open to UK culture. And we're doing that by taking on contracts, teaching more English to paying customers and working in partnership with more UK and international companies (when they get back from snowballing each other at Davos) - not by spending UK taxpayers' money.

Clearly businesses have to see the benefits of investing in entrepreneurial public services when they themselves are under the financial cosh. Thankfully, though, the benefits are relatively easy to see.

Last year, as part of its efforts in the Chinese marketplace, Burberry was one of several leading UK businesses to sponsor the UK Now festival - the biggest ever celebration of UK culture in China. In the past few weeks, Burberry has not only posted a 9% revenue rise in China, but it also became the only UK name in the Top 10 brands for luxury gifts in the eyes of China's richest consumers.

One of our main partners, the Premier League, goes from strength to strength worldwide selling broadcast rights from Brazil to Burma whilst supporting English learning, skills and opportunity in the favelas of Brazil and on the bumpy pitches of Egypt.

The opportunities for entrepreneurism will differ for every public service - and a strong public service ethos remains essential. But working with international partners, PLCs and paying customers does not have to mean compromising on core values. At its best, an 'entrepreneurial public service' can deliver what Unilever's CEO says is so hard: more, for less.

For centuries the UK's international outlook has been one of our greatest assets. We invented public services, and entrepreneurship is a UK strength. So let's look beyond Davos and out into the world and harness the power of UK culture, education and trade to keep the UK open for business through this long, cold economic winter.

 

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