Alice in SME-land – Numbers, Aspirations and Supply Chains

Peter has not been able to do 'Down the Procurement Pub this Friday,' however, we do have another very distinctive 'Friday Post' for you -- we're off Down the Procurement Rabbit Hole ... with Alice instead!

Alice had been working late all week, struggling to finish an important policy document for the Minister. Being a fast-streamer in the government was all very well, but it didn’t give her much time for her favourite hobbies – baking cupcakes, netball and recreational drugs.

So as she sat down for her lunch, on a bench facing the lake in St James Park, watching the pigeons, pelicans and waterfowl, she felt her eyelids drooping and her head spinning. Pelicans, she thought. Why do they have pelicans?

Then suddenly she was awake, with two boys, obviously twins, standing in front of her. Everyone else in the park had disappeared, and all the birds on the lake seemed different somehow – larger, she thought. And the pelicans had turned into ... flamingos?

“ Who are you?”

“ I’m Alice. Who are you?”

“ I’m William.”

“ And so am I.”

That’s confusing, thought Alice.

“No it isn’t,” said one of the boys.

“How did you know what I was thinking,” said Alice, somewhat alarmed.

“We know what everyone is thinking. That’s why we’re in charge here,” said a William.

The twins walked around her, inspecting from every angle.

“How old are you, Alice?”

“I’m twenty five,” she replied. “Why do you ask?”

“We just have to check,” said one of the boys. “After Rolf ...”

“And Gary”...

“And Jimmy”...

The way they finished each other’s sentences made her feel quite dizzy.

“But you say you’re 25? That’s exciting.” The Williams were now hopping excitedly from one foot to the other.

“Why is that?” asked Alice.

“Because it is our favourite number. We love 25. And 25 percent, that is the same thing really. But even better.”

“Yes, even better.”

Alice frowned. “But 25 isn’t the same as 25 percent . 25 percent only means something when you tell me what it is a percentage of.”

“Ooh, she’s clever.”

“Except she finished that sentence with a preposition.”

“So we like 25 because our job is to make sure that 25 percent of the government spend is with small and medium size businesses. SMEs we call them.”

They both giggled, and continued quietly muttering “SMEEEEEs” to themselves.

“We’ve been trying to make the numbers add up to 25 for nearly a year now. They just didn’t want to add up, but now we’ve done it. And we’ve brought our report to show the queen.” One William pointed to a large book his brother was carrying.

One of the twins shook his head sadly.

“It’s been hard.”

“Very hard.”

“Very hard. But now the numbers add up to 25! Well, 26 actually. So we’re so happy, we’ve come to the park to celebrate and throw rocks at the flamingos.”

“Nearly a year,” said Alice, ignoring the flamingos comment for now. “That seems a ridiculously long time to spend adding up a few numbers.”

The Williams gasped. “How dare you! You are insulting our adding-up-numbers team, the finest adding-up-numbers team in the whole of the Land! Our Master won’t be pleased!”

A tall figure walked towards them from the bridge over the lake. He towered over the Twins who shrank back from him, then knelt down with bowed heads.

“All hail the Maude”! they cried.

“You don’t look like a Maude,” said Alice, dubiously. “You’re a man.”

“Young lady, you appear to enjoy making inflammatory comments,” said the Maude. “If you do not show some respect, I may send you to Liverpool. Or invite you to a kitchen supper.”

“What’s a kitchen supper?”

At this the twins became very agitated.

“No, no, no, don’t ask him that,” they shouted as the Maude’s face rapidly turned the same shade as the flamingos. The Twins quickly began singing to distract the angry Maude.

“When the numbers don’t add up, you beat them strong and true.
And if they still don’t tell the truth, you beat them black and blue!
Twenty Five Percent! Twenty Five Percent!
We never will give up, we will never relent!
But just add up to Twenty Five, then we’ll stop beating you!”

Now, from behind the shrubbery a very pale but important looking person appeared. She stared at Alice in a manner that she felt was kindly, yet also a little threatening.

“I am the White Queen. From far off lands in the Nor,” she said.

“You mean the North,” corrected Alice.

“No, the Nor. It is not quite as far North as the North but it is certainly Nor,” said the Queen. “But never mind that, how can we help you?”

“I’m confused about the numbers,” said Alice. “Numbers always add to the same answer, I remember that clearly. I wasn’t any good at Maths, I did PPE at Oxford, but I’m sure that’s right.”

“Oh, that’s a very silly remark. Don’t be ridiculous - why should they?” replied the Queen scornfully. “You don’t always feel like eating the same food, do you? Or walking in the same direction? Why should those poor numbers always be forced to add up to the same total? It would be a very boring life. Today they might want to be 10.3, tomorrow 26.”

“But if the numbers give different answers, how do I know which is correct?”

“You ask the Enayoh,” said one of the twins.

“What is the Enayoh?”

“Nobody really knows. But we all know it is a very, very terrifying thing. And the Enayoh knows everything. Even more than him,” said a William, whispering and indicating towards the Maude.

“I think I would like to meet this Enayoh,” said Alice.

Even Maude looked terrified.

“No! You must not! It will tear you apart! And then, it will feed you to its horrible, horrible pets – the Pack!”

“No! Not the Pack! Not the Pack!” cried the twins.

“But back to the numbers - why has it taken you 11 months to add them up? I am sure I could have done that more quickly,” said Alice.

The Queen sighed.

“Well, there are 8 hours a day for sleeping, and 3 for eating. 4 hours for having strategy meetings, and 2 hours a week for health and safety. Then there are appraisals, equalities and diversity away-days, five hours a week for PQs ...”

“PQs?” said Alice

“Yes, PQs. Playing quoits,” she said. “Then there are holidays,” she continued, “and the Queens’ Birthday Holidays – that is for me and that other Queen over there” (she gestured vaguely westwards), “weekends of course, and time off for military duties, or being a councillor, or a JP, or charity work. So when we work that all out that leaves approximately 3 minutes a day to actually work out the difficult sums. So 11 months is rather impressive, don’t you think”?

Alice picked up the report and started reading.

“But really, you can’t expect the Ministry of Defence to give 25 percent of its procurement spend to small firms, can you? SMEs can’t build aircraft carriers. Or big departments like DWP with huge national programmes and IT systems? Wasn’t this just a very foolish target?”

“IT’S NOT A TARGET - IT’S AN ASPIRATION!”

Everyone shouted at once, making poor Alice cover her ears.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. But now to make the numbers add up you are including SME suppliers in the supply chain – small firms that supply to the large suppliers to government. But that is nonsense, isn’t it?”

At the word nonsense, the twins, the Queen and the Maude started spinning in front of Alice’s eyes.

“Look,” said Alice. “For a start, these big firms you have asked don’t even measure their spend with SMEs. They’ve just guessed a number to keep you happy. And what’s more, if HP or Capita buy from small suppliers, surely those small suppliers themselves buy from large firms? Shouldn’t you take that percentage off your total? But then those large firms buy from other small firms. And those small firms buy from large firms and ... it’s like disappearing down a rabbit hole.”

As Alice said this, she started feeling dizzy.

“Small firms buy from large firms ... large firms buy from small firms ... on and on forever ... meaningless numbers ... nobody knows ... does it matter ...”

The twins, Maude and the Queen were growing smaller and smaller as Alice felt herself spinning and spinning out of control, then falling, falling down and down ...

“Wake up Alice!” There was Carl, her boss, looking concerned. “We can’t go falling asleep in the Cabinet Office canteen, can we? Got to get back and answer those press queries on the SME numbers. Just keep banging on about Contracts Finder. That’ll distract them.”

He walked off, then paused and turned again.

“And remember - IT’S NOT A TARGET - IT’S AN ASPIRATION!”

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