The government is trying to woo SMEs..

Will it work?

Amid all the heat and light of the changes this government is implementing, one has received surprisingly little mainstream coverage. And that is the big pitch it is making to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as part of efforts to woo them into bidding for government work.

When it came to power, this government announced an aspiration for 25 per cent of central government procurement spending to go to SMEs. Indeed, this goal was even set in stone in the Coalition Programme for Government, which is peppered with references to start-ups and small firms.

The government claims that funnelling more of its money to SMEs will provide it with access to the latest innovation, stimulate growth and jobs, and perhaps most importantly, reduce the amount spent on public sector contracts.

Aside from the stated reasons, there are other sound motives for championing SMEs in a recession, suggests market-watcher Stephen Roberts of Kable. "The SMEs which politicians dream of as replacements for giant global IT firms are British as well as innovative. Procurement is restricted by European legislation, but championing SMEs is the acceptable face of protectionism."

And, true to its word, the government –in particular the Cabinet Office- has been beavering away at the policy ever since.

It has pushed the adoption of "lean" procurement practices across Whitehall, set up a "Mystery Shopper" scheme where businesses can raise concerns if they notice unfair practices in public procurements and launched "Contracts Finder", a website which lists past, current and future contract opportunities in the public sector.

Indeed, it even recruited someone whose sole job is to focus on championing SMEs in government- with the rather grand title of "Crown Representative for Small and Medium Enterprises".

But how successful has it been?

Figures released last week show that the central government departments spent a total of 20 per cent of their budgets with SMEs last year.

However, of that 20 per cent, only just over half (10.5 per cent) went to SMEs directly. The remainder- 9.4 per cent - filtered down to them indirectly (via larger companies subcontracting some of their work to smaller companies).

And the indirect figures do come with a health warning- they are estimated numbers taken from quarterly supplier surveys, and only started being collected in the last couple of years- so we have virtually nothing to benchmark them against.

So looking at just direct spending with SMEs, this increased from 6.5 per cent in 2009/10 to 10.5 per cent in 2012/13. By that measure, Whitehall has increased its direct spending with SMEs by a respectable 4 per cent, with 0.5 per cent of that increase being achieved last year.

So if you do choose to include indirect spending, the government spent 20 per cent with SMEs last year and it sounds like it is indeed, as it claims, "on track" to hit its 25 per cent target by 2015. If you don’t, it has rather further to go.

And it is not an easy task. Departmental resistance is strong, warns Roberts. "The Civil Service is risk-averse, and SMEs carry risks that larger suppliers do not. The collapse of IT services firm 2e2 this year left a number of public sector clients in difficulties. Pragmatic concerns like this can trump political pressures."

However, there is no denying the level of aspiration, and it seems the government is stepping up efforts to advance the SME cause, for example by appointing lead ministers and senior civil servants to drive the agenda forward across the 17 government departments.

And nowhere has the push to buy from SMEs been more pronounced than in the area of technology where a new aspiration is for 50 per cent of spending on new government IT to go to SMEs.

The government has admitted that it doesn’t actually know how much of its IT budget goes to SMEs at the moment, but considering a report in 2011 found that 80 per cent of central government IT work was undertaken by 18 suppliers- all large multinational firms- it’s safe to say the 50 per cent goal is highly ambitious.

Those working on achieving this transformation are keenly eyeing up a tranche of the biggest IT contracts due to expire in the next two years, viewing this as an opportunity to break them up into smaller, more SME-friendly contracts, a process known as "disaggregating".

In addition, the government is keen to push a programme called G-Cloud, which promotes public sector adoption of cloud computing, as a vital route for smaller companies trying to get into bidding for government work.

At the heart of G-Cloud, which was launched in 2011, is the "CloudStore", an online catalogue (think of it as Amazon for government contracts) containing details of each of the suppliers on the framework, and their services. The list is updated at least twice a year with the aim of making sure the content is kept fresh and accommodate the rapidly-changing pace of technology.

The programme has seen its sales gradually tick upwards, from £4m in December 2012 to £11m in March 2013, £18m in April, £25m in June and £31m in July.

And it can boast some pretty impressive statistics, with SMEs winning 56 per cent of total sales by value, and over 60 per cent of contract wins.

With less than two years to go until the next election, many in government are aware that time is running out for them to cement SMEs into the government procurement mix.

The bottom line is that there can only be one winner. If SMEs are to gain more business, the government’s traditional suppliers will have to cede some of their Whitehall territory.

Indeed, some SMEs are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of long-term, inaccessible government contracts running out over the next few years. Already the Cabinet Office, led by Minister Francis Maude, has weighed in with rhetoric saying contracts will not be renewed.

The government is preparing to go to battle on SMEs behalf- whether they will win remains to be seen.

The government is wooing SMEs. Photograph: Getty Images

Charlotte Jee is a Reporter at Government Computing

 

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Of course we could do more to stop terrorism – if we’re willing to live in a police state

 The only way to stop this sort of human monster completely is to become like them.

What are we prepared to sacrifice to keep children safe? On Monday night at Manchester arena, 22 people were senselessly slaughtered. Many of them were young girls, pouring out of a pop concert, giddy with excitement. Hours before the killer was identified or Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the attack, the political conversation had already turned to vengeance, and respected public thinkers were calling, in the name of those dead children, for further crackdowns on immigrants and perceived outsiders, for troops on the streets, for "internment camps'" with straight faces and the sincere implication that anyone who disagrees is weak-willed and possibly a terrorist sympathiser. A lot of little girls have been killed. What good are tolerance and human rights today?

Nobody can be expected to be instantly rational when dozens of kids have just been maimed and murdered. There are, however, individuals who seem more than prepared to exploit the occasion to further their own agendas. Yet again, we are told that the state is failing in its duty to protect "our" children, that pansy liberals won't let us raise the "obvious solutions" to this problem. Nobody can quite bring themselves to articulate exactly what those "obvious solutions" might be, hedging the issue instead with grave looks, raised eyebrows and stern allusions to the consequences of political correctness. The consensus is that we are living in a nation so paralysed by hand-flapping progressive talk-talkery that ordinary, right-thinking folks aren’t allowed to say what’s really on their minds. 

The truth is that nobody’s stopping anyone from saying what they think about any of this, and if you don’t believe me, take a brisk scroll through Twitter this afternoon, and keep some eyeball bleach on hand. In fact, the reason a lot of people are stopping short of saying what they think ought to be done is that they know full well that what they think ought to be done is unacceptable and shameful in any sane society. So shameful, indeed, that it takes a professional shit-stirrer to speak it aloud. 

Enter Katie Hopkins. It’s not just pro-trolls like her who have called for a "final solution" following the Manchester Arena bombing. Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson declared that we should start putting "thousands" of people in "internment camps" in the name of protecting children. Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill echoed the tone, blaming "multiculturalism" for mass murder, and implying that anyone advocating calm and tolerance in the face of terrorism does not feel sufficiently angry about the murder of 22 of their fellow citizens. “It is becoming clear,” insists O'Neill, “that the top-down promotion of a hollow ‘togetherness’ in response to terrorism is about cultivating passivity.”

In fact, Britain is far from passive in the face of extremist violence. Britain already has one of the most robust counter-terrorism programs on the planet. We are among the most surveilled societies in the Western world. We have a counter-extremism program, Prevent, that places a duty in schools, universities and other public bodies to report any suspected radical or "extremist" activity, and is so exacting that it has been condemned by experts and educators across the board as an infringement of the right to free speech and thought. The authorities responsible for heading off and hunting down these psychopaths and all who sail with them are hardly slacking on the job. The problem is that there's really no way to up the game from here without going full police state. The pundits condemning the relevant institutions as shirkers today know this full well, which is why a police state is exactly what they’re asking for, with the inference that anyone who disagrees is awfully relaxed about the violent death of young girls and their parents.

So let’s not mince words. Let's be absolutely clear what’s at stake here. Let us acknowledge that yes, we could do more to stop this, if we wanted. And then let's think about whether that's really, actually, what we want.

Yes, we could do more. We could allow the state to round up and lock away anyone even remotely suspected of violent, extremist tendencies; anyone who has ever accessed a suspicious website or attended a dubious lecture. We'd have to lock those people up for a very long time, of course, because if there's one thing that nudges people from a passing interest in anti-state violence into full on fanaticism, it's active state oppression. We could ban anyone who's ever been in any way associated with extremist ideology from entering the country, including those who are fleeing violence themselves. We could institute total surveillance of everyone’s online activity. We could build those internment camps. They’d be expensive, so it’s only fair that potential degenerates and their associates be obliged to work for their keep. Of course, you wouldn't want those internment camps spread out - you'd want the inmates concentrated in one place. What could we call such camps? I’m sure we’ll think of a name.

If we did all that, and more, then yes, there's a chance that we could stop atrocities like this from happening again. Even then, there's no guarantee. The most exacting neo-stasi infrastructure can’t always stop the rogue loner with a breadknife and a brain boiling with arcane violence. It would, however, significantly lower the odds.

The question is not whether it can be done. Of course it can be done. Paranoid, bloodless, hyper-vigilant police states have been instituted in European nations before, and if any country on earth has the infrastructure to make it work right now, it's Britain, a small island with an extensive surveillance architecture, a mostly urban population, a conservative government currently seeking re-election on a tough-love platform, and no pesky constitutional rights to free speech. We can do it if we want to. Sure we can. The question is whether we should. The question is whether it's worth it. Is it worth it, to prevent the loss of one more young life, the devastation of one more family?

Don’t answer that right now. Give it a few days, at least, because right now it makes a great deal of emotional sense to say yes, yes, it’s worth it. Anything to stop something like this happening again. To save one child. To keep hundreds more from being traumatised for life just because they went to a pop concert with their friends. I suspect that today, tucked away in the collective psyche of a great many otherwise tolerant and decent people, is a furious, frightened voice yelling - sure, let’s do it. Let’s shut the borders and build the camps. It might not be nice, it might not even be right, but these evil dickheads are killing kids, so frankly, fuck the Geneva convention.

That furious, frightened instinct needs to be named so we can deal with it like adults. The anger and the fear here are real and legitimate, even though a great many bad actors are exploiting them to further racist, xenophobic agendas. It’s alright to be frightened and furious. It’s not alright to let those emotions dictate public policy. Today, with the faces of murdered little girls all over the news, is not a day to ask anyone what they’re prepared to sacrifice to make sure this never happens again.

Because the truth is that the only way to stop this sort of human monster is to become like them. The only way to be sure that no swivel-eyed extremist who hates life, and liberty and raw youthful joy so much that he's prepared to blow up a pop concert full of teenagers can never do that again is to acquiesce to the sort of state apparatus that is anathema to joy and liberty and life, the sort of state apparatus that no child should grow up with.

This is why platitudes about 'unity', about 'not letting hate win', about keeping it together and trying not to let our worst instincts take over, are not, in fact, platitudes at all. They are not banal. They are not hollow. It takes enormous strength of character, at a time like this,  not to give in to fear and rage and the rationale of revenge. The people of Manchester are showing that strength in the wake of one of the most horrific mass murders this tense and divided nation has ever seen. We owe it to them, to the victims of this attack, and to their families not to sully their memories by surrendering to the logic of intolerance.

It is at moments like this when a community proves its character.  It is at times like this that it is more, not less essential to refuse racist and fascist ideas. Tolerance is not passivity. Kindness is not weakness. It is not cowardly to stay with our anger and our grief and refuse to let those emotions sway our commitment to human dignity, or to look dreadful vengeance in the face and refuse it. It is strength. It is strength more profound and more human than fundamentalists of any faction can comprehend, and if we hang on to that strength, they will never, ever win. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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