Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Odanglesex Chronicles - The Away Day (6)

Neil Balderson, with a grave visage, opened the envelope and read out the group's task:


You are officers of East Sessex County Council, which 22 months ago responded to a worsening economic landscape in East Sessex as a result of the international downturn by offering help to local businesses through the innovative creation of a Bank of East Sessex. The Bank was scoped to deliver user-friendly loans to SMEs which were unable to access traditional sources of finance due to an adverse lending environment. It was managed through an arms-length instrument and seedcorned with £3.6 million from East Sessex County Council reserves, though it was envisaged that 50% plus of the funding would come from private enterprise including the county's trading partners in North Korea.

Performance of the Bank failed to correspond to the envisaged parameters. Private sector support was disappointing and promised funds from North Korea were repeatedly delayed, reportedly due to piratical activity off Somalia. The twelve-month review revealed that loans had been made to only four entrepreneurs, one of whom absconded, one became insolvent six weeks after receiving the loan and one of which, whose business plan concerned the creation of an Anglo-North Korean cultural and security community, had reported no activity. The fourth, which was coincidentally headed by the Leader of the Council's godson, had successfully achieved take-off. This business involved the offering of high-interest loans to persons unable to access traditional sources of finance. The money loaned was connected by a causal paper trail to the Bank of East Sessex.

Foyurteen months after its launch, ESCC announced it was withdrawing its support and the bank was wound up.

A new Leader of the Council is anxious to revive the scheme under another name and an officer scope and image group has been formed preparatory to the formation of a task and finish group. Your task is to scope an approach to the re-launch."

As Neil Balderson had read this, his face had begun to enter a rare phase many of the others had never seen. He looked troubled. The slightest of signs in his reading voice pointed the same way. Reema and Gwilym were exchanging glances and shifting about restlessly.

"Well, that's an interesting one," Neil said.

"Yes - very interesting," Gwilym said enthusiastically.

"Judging by that fascinating brief, we're not allowed to say the whole idea is rubbish and we shouldn't touch it with a barge-pole," Henry offered.

"Henry - we're supposed to be positive. This is a blue-skies-thinking perspective and you're supposed to be an achieving go-getter, remember?" Neil replied. Henry subsided, muttering about blue skies and bloody thunderstorms. "O.K. - Facilitator, would you care to run an initial scoping exercise over the issues?" he continued. Gwilym gulped and read desperately - but not for long.

"The story we need to present is of an innovative innovation - I mean, initiative - with high points and low points. In aiming high for outstanding excellence through the re-badging and revival of the scheme, we should learn from the apparent low points and ensure that the high points are more aggressively communicated," he offered.

"So what are the high points?" Reema asked. There was an awkward silence.

"Surely the stategic analysis is correct - that small enterprises in Odanglesex need additional sources of funding?" Neil asked - and received some signs of assent.

"But it didn't work," Reema objected. Neil looked unhappy but it was Lucy who intervened.

"Reema, you're concentrating on the negative aspects. O.K., performance didn't reach expected levels, but there are a number of positives. For example, one successful business was launched using Bank of Odan... I mean, East Sessex funding."

"And that was a loan shark," Henry interjected. Neil shifted in his chair.

"Colleagues - it's very easy to pick holes in a high-risk innovative transformational initiative which ran into difficulties. But Lucy's right. We need to find and stress the positives." Until now Julie had been silent, but now she intervened:

"One: the failure rate of the enterprises funded was only 50%. One succeeded and one's still pending. Two: one loan itself created more liquidity through a multiplier effect. Three: any future bank of East Sessex will be able to draw on the expertise accumulated. Four: if the two failures hadn't been funded by this bank, they might have got funded by someone else who would have lost money. Five: don't I recall the scheme being praised by the Prime Minister?" Neil had perked up and took the opportunity to remind the others that they needed to present something new, not merely justify the original plan.

"So what will be new?" he concluded.

"Have economic conditions changed?" Gwilym queried. Reema replied that the latest survey of Odanglesex businesses showed 68% found getting loans difficult compared to 77% last year and 74% the year before.

"Good - so the situation has eased. That makes success for new enterprises more likely," Lucy concluded.

"Banks aren't very popular right now," Gwilym said.

"Fair point. So we don't call it a bank. What about a co-operative community lending vehicle?" Julie suggested.

"What about the North Korean business?" Reema asked. "Is it a no-no or could it be revived?"

"Brilliant! We could contribute an Odanglesex element to the international anti-piracy force in the Indian Ocean!" Gwilym suggested. "Then perhaps the North Korean funds would come through." Julie seemed uncertain about this, perhaps wondering if this would end as a request to Odanglesex Police, but Lucy was supportive and Neil downright enthusiastic. Gwilym's expression suggested he had meant it as a joke. Turning from trying to convey silent messages to the disapproving Reema and Henry, he found himself making eye contact with a familiar face. Kenneth Spotlessnob had arrived and was standing by their table listening.

It would soon be time for the groups to report in plenary session.

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