Sarah Stone: Talking point

Picture: Colin Mearns, Herald and Times

First published by Business HQ on 26 September 2019

POLITICIANS are often accused of being “all talk and no action”, but for Sarah Stone, who served as external relations adviser to David Cameron when he was in Number 10, the talking part is vital. So much so, in fact, that, having learned the art – and the value – of conversation during her time in the political sphere, Ms Stone named her business, Samtaler, after it.

“Samtaler is the Danish word for conversation,” she explains over an afternoon cup of tea during which the conversation never stops. “Stakeholder engagement is what I do – you can’t find out what will help people without talking to them. A large part of my approach is about talking to people and listening to them and finding out what they need and what they want.”

Talking and listening may sound simple but, as Ms Stone found out during her time in Downing Street, who you are talking and listening to is key, something politicians – and businesses – do not always get right.

“When I was in Number 10 we would put together a programme of events that we wanted to align with the political agenda; Number 10 would decide something then it would go to the relevant departments for support,” she recalls.

“I’d go to the departments and say ‘the Prime Minister would like to have an event to celebrate NHS staff, can you give me 200 names [of people to invite]’. They would send back a list of CEOs, lady this and sir that – the same people that had been there so many times before when the Prime Minister needed to talk people he didn’t normally get a chance to speak to.

“Changes to legislation in 2010 that were intended to prevent lobbying – which were quite right – even further distanced politicians from stakeholders. I believe you get bad decisions when the people making the decisions don’t understand the ramifications.”

It was exactly this kind of disconnect Ms Stone wanted to address when, after moving to Scotland in 2014 to work on the Better Together campaign, she went on to establish Samtaler in 2017. The premise for the business is simple: it aims to help companies bidding for public sector work meet their obligation under the Procurement Reform Act to make a positive social impact in local communities while at the same time maintaining economic value for themselves. With neither the public or private sector quite sure what that means in practice, though, Ms Stone has her work cut out.

“The Procurement Reform Act is a great piece of legislation with some brilliant things in it – it’s very specific about, for example, including community benefits in contracts,” she says. “I read it and thought it was really exciting because it takes the private sector and connects it with community groups and the third sector, but who’s going to work out what everyone needs or what a community benefit is? It’s not going to be the procurement team at the local authority because they only know about procurement while the third sector knows nothing about procurement.”

Ms Stone had experience of working with community groups after setting up a social enterprise with former Glasgow Kelvin Labour MSP Pauline McNeill – who has since been re-elected to Holyrood – in 2015. That organisation, McNeill & Stone, did public affairs for corporates and used its profits to help community organisations navigate their way around pieces of legislation such as the Equality Act or the Land Reform Act.

Though McNeill & Stone was disbanded when Ms McNeill was returned as a list MSP in 2016, Ms Stone saw an opportunity to combine what she had learned from working with grassroots groups with what she had learned while working at Westminster to help maximise the impact of Holyrood’s procurement legislation.

“I thought what I’d really like to do was the community stuff but that wasn’t going to pay because I wasn’t going to take any money off them,” she recalls. “I’d co-ordinated the Tories’ 2010 election policy and I’d learned from that what a policymaker does for a politician – a politician says ‘let’s do something about homelessness’ and a policymaker looks at it and says ‘these are the solutions’. [What Samtaler does] is a bit like that. A company can’t go and try to solve homelessness because businesses are about making money and creating economic value, but they can do that in a way that will create social value as well as economic value.”

To date the community-benefit aspect of procurement has revolved largely around public sector organisations asking companies bidding for work to create jobs in the local area, something that can be difficult to achieve and even harder to sustain. Ms Stone is working with organisations such as Perth and Kinross Council to create a more joined-up – and mutually beneficial – approach.

“The council is creating a wishlist of what communities want so that when a supplier is bidding for a contract they can pick from that list,” she explains. “I’m populating that for them and contacting third sector organisations in Perth and Kinross to tell them what it is.

“The kind of things people are asking for is help with the risk assessment for a village fete or help with publicising a fiddle and accordion festival. If you’re an insurance company and you’re bidding for a £4 million contract and you’re asked to give something that’s worth a few hundred pounds for free, you would.”

Ms Stone sees Samtaler’s role as the matchmaker in the process, helping corporates understand the needs they can address and pointing them in the right direction to make sure that they do actually address them. Having someone to direct the matches is important, Ms Stone believes, because “if you ask a supplier for something that will cost too much they’ll just pass the cost onto the council and that won’t drive any community benefit”.

“For me, the key thing is that it’s got to be of benefit to the community and of benefit to the procurer and it has to be something the supplier can easily give,” she says. “You have to get those three things right and that’s not always easy.”

Ultimately for Ms Stone, if her business can help other organisations get those things right then she will be doing her bit to help shift the focus away from the creation only of shareholder value and towards the creation of stakeholder value instead.

“People will want to work for or buy products from companies who behave in this way,” she says. “I went into politics because I thought I could make a difference, but now I think the private sector is where I can make a difference.”