If you have every worked for a public sector organisation you may be sympathetic to some of the news stories that abound at the moment? If you have worked for a private sector company you may read some of them with profound disbelief.
After attending Staff College I was posted to be GSO2 (SHORTAS & UGS) (Note 1) in the GW(E) Directorate of the MOD (PE) based in Fleetbank House, just of Fleet Street in London. You see; bored already! I will not try to explain the intricacies of the Ministry of Defence’s buying department (PE – short for ‘Procurement Executive’, an unfortunate choice that word: ‘procurement’!) , save to say they have been reformed, reorganised, criticised and left alone to fester, and still they remain an immoveable monster which has eaten many a capable senior civil or military servant.
One of the features of the current ‘normal’ is that apparently we dream more than during the old ‘normal’. Last night I had a real nightmare and it was so vivid I scribbled it down. Does it make sense? I will let you be the judge of that.
“Down in the bowels of a NHS (Nutritional Happiness Supply) government building, rarely seeing the daylight, I sit with Jon and Marion, awaiting the other committee members. We are responsible for the supply of Smarties, a national favourite and one without which the country would simply grind to a halt. I’ve called a crisis meeting; people from all over the country have come, as their department is always invited, whether they have anything sensible to contribute or not. Three people could have made the decisions necessary but twelve will guarantee no decisions today.
I call the meeting to order and put up an agenda as my first PowerPoint slide:
“The Menu for lunch.”
“Good morning! First I can confirm lunch is fixed in Room 201 for 1230; coffee and biscuits on the table as normal. (Note 2) We have a crisis of supply …. so, George, why don’t you summarise where we are?”
George, the Midland Hub Warehouse Manager (NHS), looks sheepish, unused to the spotlight.
“You may have read the minutes of a meeting thirteen years ago when it was decided to find a cheaper supplier and that that supplier is overseas.”
Many heads nod and recall that decision, taken after a great deal of heated debate, to place the contract in Germany. (Some people have been in their posts for years!)
“Well,” continues George, “the world has fallen in love with Smarties and there is projected to be, in Quarter 2, a shortage. The price is expected to go through the roof and we will not have the budget to pay for them.”
“But there must be someone here in Britain who could produce them?” asks Alice who’s new and innocent to government by committee.
“Well! There used to be quite a manufacturing base in the country but we have been seduced by cheapest is best, never mind the quality, crowing about how much money we have saved as we went to you-know-where, so now there’s no one who can produce Smarties here in the UK. I have photocopied off the General Smarties Specification (GSS) so please grab one and have a look.”
Antony interrupts: “Surely that place up in Yorkshire could be restarted?”
The meeting has a period of general discussion; I allow everyone to have their say.
“Can we work through lunch?” asks Alice.
“Tut Tut” says Godfrey who’s travelled in from Reading and wants his lunch, the highlight of his month. He also seems to have a cough!
We reconvene after lunch. Meanwhile the GSS has been emailed to a number of companies the committee thought might have been able to manufacture Smarties in the UK. Jon adds that he’s had two entrepreneurs he has never heard of ask for a copy. Antony says rather disdainfully they will have to do due diligence on these people: “We can’t let a government contract to anyone.”
“Surely that takes months?” asks Alice.
“Ah! Yes! But we could have a shortened ‘crisis’ version – I’ve been reliably informed it could be done in 5 weeks.”
“Would it help if the GSS had an option for alternatives in terms of size, or shape or packaging for instance?” asks Alice.
“What? Like 50% smaller? Or less sugar? Or a softer coating? Or in a square box as opposed to a hexagonal tube? Or a bigger tube?” queries Jon
Brian, who’s been very quiet as he’s nearing retirement after a career spanning forty years and doesn’t want to do anything that might jeopardise his pension, complains. I glance at him across the windowless room; Brian is one of those ‘beige’ men, always dressed in shades of beige and often looking as though he needs a good bath, with his clothes heading for the washing machine. Brian always complains. “If the Smarties come in anything other than a tube then I will not be able to play the game of seeing how far the plastic end of the tube will travel.”
Everyone looks at him; they know that the cylindrical cardboard tube was discontinued in 2005.
“But Brian,” says Jon, “they have been available in all sorts of little boxes and bags and large tubes for some time!! Where have you been?”
I say I know a company who make something similar, a little chocolate button called M&Ms or maybe they’re called N&Ns ……. but they’re not Smarties.
“No, but they could make Smarties for us surely, for this is a national crisis.” Says Alice
“What? Ask a competitor to make a Smartie?” sneers Antony.
“Should we respond to the entrepreneurs quickly ….. simply to say give us your suggestion and we will get back to you in a few days? Bring them in to a GSS meeting with all interested parties.”
“How many tubes of Smarties do we need?” asks Marion, always focused on the important facts.
“Well the nation gets through 18 million tubes a day …… each tube currently sells for costs £0.60 (for 32 Smarties at 38 grams each) and we’ll need enough to last until September at least.”
Committee members reach for their calculators and crunch some numbers …… and there’s a clamour …… everyone starts shouting at once ……. even Brian seems to be more animated than normal …….. Godfrey coughs loudly.
There’s another sound in my ear; the alarm is ringing. I wake up in a sweat. Thursday morning and still in ‘lockdown’ …… another sort of nightmare!
Richard 30th April 2020
Note 1. For those unfamiliar with service abbreviations GSO (2) W- (SHORTAS & UGS) stands for General Staff Officer (grade 2) Weapons (ie technical!) Short Range Target Acquisition Systems & Unattended Ground Sensors. As if you ever wanted to know!
Note 2 Important issues always addressed first!
Note 3. In our real world, the news reported that some Dutch trader had a warehouse full of personal protection equipment and was offering it at a big mark-up – masks normally £0.15 for £3 or aprons normally £0.02 for £0.30.