It is now clear Britain got a 'bounce' from the Olympics, but much more is now needed to secure long‑term economic legacy

By Andrew Hammond

This article was first published by Reuters. Anyone wishing to republish the piece should please acknowledge that the original was published by Reuters.

Six months since the London 2012 games began, a flurry of research has indicated that the UK's international image has received a boost from hosting the Olympics and Paralympics.  Most recently, the latest Anholt GfK Roper Nation Brands Index, released on January 17, showed that the United Kingdom edged up from fifth to fourth place since July 2012 in the survey's overall country reputation rankings; only the United States, Germany and France currently have a more favourable nation brand.

Key research findings from this study, which follows similar IPSOS Mori research in December, include that international perceptions of the United Kingdom as a 'welcoming' nation have significantly improved.  This is reflected, for instance, in the fact that 63% of international respondents to the Anholt GfK survey said that London 2012 had increased their own interest in visiting the United Kingdom.

This positive news follows an ICM opinion poll released in December which revealed that the UK public remains very strongly supportive of hosting the games last year.  Over three quarters of UK respondents agreed that London 2012 was "well worth the [multi-billion pounds] cost", and a similar percentage believed the games "did a valuable job in cheering up a country in hard times".

It is remarkable that the post-London 2012 feel-good mood has lasted so long.  Yet, in 2013, it could easily begin to fragment unless public demands for a meaningful, long-term legacy from the Olympics and Paralympics are secured.

Much attention has been given to the sporting and volunteering dimensions of the legacy, yet the economic and reputational ones are key too.  The prizes, according to the UK Government, include an additional 13 billion pounds for UK plc over four years from enhanced inward investment, in-bound tourism, and increased exports, built upon enhanced UK reputation.

However, as encouraging as the recent spate of research potentially is, it should not be forgotten that a majority of nations have previously failed to capitalise in the long term, economically and reputationally, upon hosting the games.  A successful outcome this time around for the United Kingdom is far from assured; urgent effort is therefore now required if the opportunity is not maximised.

So what is now needed to be done?

In a report on December 7, the National Audit Office (NAO) identified "firm leadership and oversight" as being key to securing long-term legacy.  At present, it is the Cabinet Office providing this leadership, with oversight of multiple public sector organisations tasked with legacy responsibilities.

However, the scale and complexity of the challenge means that this structure needs rethinking.

What is needed, instead, to maximise success in terms of economic and reputational legacy is the creation of what might be called an 'Economics Team GB' that mirrors the diversity and determination of our Olympic and Paralympic sportsmen and women.  But what does this mean, in practice, and how do we get there in coming months?

Put simply, a concerted effort is required (as some other countries, including New Zealand, have done in the past) to bring together, in unified purpose and bold vision, major economic stakeholders (an 'Economics Team GB'), from across the public, private and third sectors.  This should be centred around a clear and coherent national strategy to ensure London 2012 becomes a springboard for success for the entire UK economy, not only individual sectors like tourism.

Like the London 2012 project itself, this legacy strategy should ideally have as much cross-party political support as possible, and be at least five to ten years in length.  As such, it would sustain itself well beyond the immediate bounce that London 2012 has given, and seek to look at how the success of the Olympics and Paralympics might also be replicated (albeit on a smaller scale) with key future events in the United Kingdom such as the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup in 2014, the Rugby World Cup in 2015, and the World Athletics Championships in 2017.

This national legacy strategy can be initially Government-led to keep momentum going in the first half of 2013.  But, it ultimately must reach well beyond the public sector to key business stakeholders including the British Retail Consortium, the British Chambers of Commerce, and other representative bodies from right across the private and third sectors.

To be sure, some good public sector building blocks are already in place to facilitate an Economics Team GB initiative.  For instance, VisitBritain (the national tourism agency) is in the midst of its biggest ever international tourism campaign; and UK Trade and Investment (which works with UK businesses to help ensure success in international markets, and encourages overseas companies to look to invest in the UK) hosted during London 2012 its largest ever programme of events to help secure new business deals.

Moreover, an ambitious, cross-Government department marketing campaign is also underway that seeks to refresh international perceptions of Britain as amongst the top places in the world to visit, live, work, study and do business.  The programme is built upon key pillars of British global excellence, many of which were highlighted in London 2012, like Technology and Innovation, Creativity, Music and Sport.

These public sector initiatives have clearly brought some immediate dividends. However, more is needed to maximise long-term economic legacy.

One example of what is needed here is the partnership between British Airways and VisitBritain to boost in-bound tourism from a number of key markets, including China and India.  This 'Big British Invite' campaign features special fares on British Airways flights from these markets, alongside a marketing push from VisitBritain.

Of course, if and when an Economics Team GB gets up and running, there will still be numerous potential obstacles (including funding, bureaucracy, and competing agendas) to realising the full ambition.  However, as with with the daunting Olympics and Paralympics mega-project itself, none of these issues are insuperable, as a report on the lessons of London 2012, released on January 22, by the Institute for Government has outlined.

As the NAO and Institute of Government highlight, at the heart of success will be strong, able leadership and oversight.  The Economics Team GB initiative will thus ultimately need to be led by exceptionally able people, with clear accountabilities, from not just the private sector, but also the private and third sectors too.

The challenges ahead are real, but if we can surmount them, Economics Team GB could play a key role in ensuring sustained recovery from recession.  At a time of continued financial uncertainty, will we seize the opportunity in a decisive way, or let it slip through our fingers?

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