Fostering good relations

Fostering good relations

What would a Labour administration mean for public-sectorconsultants? The IMC's Sarah Taylor listened to the views of Derek Foster MP, who shadows Civil Service issues and the management of government.

On 30 October, the Rt. Hon. Derek Foster MP, fresh from a shadow cabinet meeting, spoke candidly to IMC’s Public Sector Special Interest Group (PSSIG) about the use of consultants in the public sector. A Labour MP since 1979, Foster now shadows the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and is responsible for civil service issues and the management of government.

Should his party be successful in a general election, its first job will be to restore the public’s confidence in government. Labour is determined to address the general disillusionment with the political process as well as the more specific allegations of sleaze which tarnish politicians with the same brush. Foster, son of a shipworker, has a strong belief in the concept of public service and is convinced there is a need for democratic and constitutional renewal.

He has represented Bishop Auckland since 1979 and advocates devolution of government to the regions, where he believes there is much energy and commitment, as well as a reform of the House of Lords which would put an end to the hereditary principle.

Delegates were amused to hear familiar management jargon delivered by a mature politician, who, although embracing New Labour, is wholeheartedly cynical about the use of media soundbites. He spoke of a need to “reconnect people with their (public) services” by encouraging users to work alongside employees on planning and design. And of Labour’s interest in “empowering the users” through a new Citizens Charter and a “continuous improvement” of public services. Foster spoke of initiative fatigue in the Civil Service and a resistance to change which is leading to a mis-management of the new schemes, a scenario familiar to the members of the PSSIG.

The MP freely admitted that Labour got into the habit of defending the status quo during the Thatcher years but reassured the audience that Tony Blair sees no future in resisting change. Indeed he has transformed his own party to meet the needs of today’s electorate. Having introduced the soundbite “managing change for the benefit of the many”, Foster stressed that this had to be made to work and here was a role for consultants.

Sounding uncannily like a change manager, the MP spoke of a “partnership in the workplace” between the public servants and the consultants, keeping resistance to a minimum and harnessing the skills and commitment of the employees to the benefit of the end users. Mr Foster reminded delegates of their moral obligation to enable people to survive change; however, he did express an aversion to macho management. Having referred to the success of the Japanese in motivation and change management, he reminded listeners that “there is a free brain with every pair of hands”.

Foster responded to a number of stimulating questions from IMC members.

Q. In my experience, the Civil Service lacks the skills to manage change, do you see a role for the use of external consultants?

A. The Civil Service has been so downsized under the Tories that it cannot respond to change. There will be a need to recruit and train a new genre of public sector managers and this could be an area where consultants could help. Politicians are endemically short-termist, however we are keen to adopt the best of private sector practice and recognise the need for a 10-15 year agenda.

Q. Historically the public sector has always resisted change. Will Labour have the guts to implement the proposed changes?

A. Change has been resisted in the UK and this has meant wasted opportunities.

What we have to do is alter people’s reaction to change. The Japanese don’t resist change, but this probably has something to do with the fact that they are guaranteed a job for life. The challenge is to continue to employ the entire workforce productively. Change is inevitable.

Q. You have spoken in the media about using civil servants as internal consultants. Could you explain what you mean by this and would these individuals work alongside external consultants?

A. There is much expertise in the Civil Service, however, this should be complemented where appropriate by private sector skills. (Comment from Barry Curnow, IMC president: internal staff may be reluctant to accept changes imposed upon them by superiors. Here is an opportunity for partnership/mentoring by external consultants.)

Q. Public sector tendering often favours the Big Six consultancies and it is very difficult for specialists and smaller practices to get involved.

A. Cartelisation of the profession is a problem and Labour would like to loosen it.

Q. In a recent article you spoke of consultants charging u1,000 a day.

The majority of people here tonight have worked for far less in the public sector! In the same article you stressed the importance of qualifications.

What are your thoughts on the Certified Management Consultant (CMC) qualification?

A. Self-regulation has got itself a bad name, especially in government.

We are happy for consultants to regulate themselves provided that the standards are high. It is important to engage consultants for the right reasons, allowing them to be more effective and thus giving better value for money.

Q. Many consultants are involved in Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) bids for local economic development. Will this type of funding continue under Labour?

A. Labour believes in partnership within the community and this is one way forward in the renewal of our inner cities. We want to enable rather than control.

Q. Will initiatives such as Performance Related Pay (PRP), Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and outsourcing continue under Labour?

A. The emphasis should be on the team rather than the individual. Labour will stop privatisation but will keep the agency structure as this has, on the whole, been successful and civil servants who are experts at offering policy advice may not be good at running large organisations. There will be a moratorium on market testing under Labour. In my view, the gains are exaggerated and the costs underestimated. With regard to PFI, we are committed to public/private sector partnerships but won’t use PFI as a vehicle for blatant privatisation. Labour supports investment in the public sector but some areas are not suitable for private sector involvement.

Q. After 18 years in opposition how will Labour prepare people for cabinet posts?

A. A great deal of preparation is going on but there is no satisfactory way other than experience. It is our job to galvanise the machine and to provide what training is available. There will be many surprises.

Some will respond well to their new roles, others less well.

The Public Sector Interest Group is one of many IMC special interest groups. Each group organises events designed to update IMC members on specialist issues, facilitate debate and encourage networking. Some events are open to non-members. For more information on the Public Sector Specialist Interest Group contact Bob Empson on 0171 637 5377. For information on forthcoming Special Interest Group Events contact Anna Kennedy at the IMC offices.

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