TechnologyAccounting SoftwareCareers: Public Sector

Careers: Public Sector

The public sector is widely seen as a dull area of consulting yet those in the know find it a rewarding place to work. Mary Huntington spoke to some government experts about their experiences and their motivations.

[QQ]The public sector seems to be saddled with a staid and boring “civil service” image at variance with the opinion held by people who actually work in it.[QQ] For Peter Allred, practice head of public sector at Deloitte Consulting, for example, that general misunderstanding of the sector by both industry and the public at large is the most frustrating aspect of his work.[QQ] He is enormously enthusiastic about working in the sector: “A lot of consultants like to work in it because they believe they can make a difference to people’s lives.” He cites a recent Deloitte project for the Home Office, involving the procurement and implementation of an electronic “tagging” service to allow offenders to be released early from prison. “The consultants working on it really believed it would improve things for people,” he says. “People want to work in the sector because they see it as consulting with a heart,” he adds.[QQ] Michael O’Higgins, head of government and public service consulting at PA Consulting Group, agrees. “People who focus on government consulting do so because they have an interest in better public service. As a consumer, my expectations of the quality of public service are shaped by the changing nature of service I get in the private sector.” He adds: “Because of their view across sectors, what consultants can bring that perhaps government on its own would find difficult, is the ability to assist the public sector to continually change so that government does not fall too far behind the best in good practical experience.”[QQ] O’Higgins has worked in the sector for more than 10 years, as a partner at Price Waterhouse for six years, before taking over as head of practice at PA two and a half years ago. He says things have changed over that time. “Assignments are bigger and much more likely to be with central government and its agencies than with local government or health authorities, where we do little work quite deliberately.” He thinks this is true of all the large firms. It is a deliberate policy for PA, he says, because of the size of projects and the lower fee rates obtainable in the health and local government arena. “I speak to local government consultants who spend half their time on motorways going from half a day’s work at one local authority to half a day’s work at another,” he says. “As we try to do larger full-time projects they tend to be with larger organisations rather than with dispersed ones like local authorities.” However, he says, this does not apply to SAP implementations, only traditional consulting.[QQ] At Deloitte Consulting, says Allred, the management solutions practice handles projects in the local authority and health service area, while the public sector practice focuses on larger engagements. The latter have become bigger and far more complex in recent years, he says. “They tend to be all embracing, enterprise transformation projects now. We get involved in policy making and enabling technology, re-engineering and change management.”[QQ] Key drivers for PA’s public sector business are PFI and Private/Public Partnerships and the move towards electronic government, says O’Higgins.[QQ] He adds: “Whether you call it value for money, benchmarking, process re-engineering or performance improvement, we have also done quite a lot of assignments to try to make government work better. For example, a project for the Youth Justice Board involved reducing delays in the sentencing of young offenders, a direct manifesto commitment by the Government.”[QQ] The project gave him considerable satisfaction. “Turning good ideas and aspirations into implementable policies is very satisfying.”[QQ] According to O’Higgins, there is an obvious difference between working in the public sector and the private sector: “If you are doing a bid or a post-implementation review with clients in the commercial sector you can match the costs of the consultancy assistance against the commercial benefits attained. You can stop the client focusing on your bill and focus on the value they are getting: that’s much harder in the public sector. So you need to find different ways of demonstrating value.”[QQ] A second difference, he says, is the absolute requirement to understand the accountability constraints of working in the public sector. “As a private sector manager I can just say ‘let’s do it’ without having to go through an audit trail or whatever but that is much more difficult for people in the public sector. Some consultants may find it frustrating but there is no point in seeking to work in the public sector without understanding that this is a factor.”[QQ] For Allred, the intellectual stimulation of the whole thing is what he enjoys most. “There are so many balancing factors about how government operates. The service/cost balance is far more obvious in the private sector and is a significant challenge in the public sector.” Then there is the critical nature of many public sector projects. “If you are working for the MoD, for example, the quality of the project can affect national security. It is very important to get it right.”[QQ] He has done a lot of work in defence arena, such as a project looking at how the repair and maintenance of aircraft is best undertaken. “These are very technical and important client-facing engagements. Security is high and information restricted.” He has had both highs and lows in the sector. One high point was an MoD project involved devising multidisciplinary teams for front line supplies, cutting across existing boundaries. “Seeing the results was very rewarding,” he says. He recalls his most taxing project as one for a defence repair organisation where views on the way to go were very much polarised. Bringing the two groups together was very difficult, he says.[QQ] Allred started out as a graduate engineer with a defence contractor.[QQ] “That gave me a good grounding,” he says, “and I went into consulting to get wider experience in manufacturing.”[QQ] David Milne, a senior consultant and director at Hedra, on the other hand, came into public sector consulting by accident. “I worked for multinationals, coming up the IT route and getting into IS planning.” He joined Hedra in 1990.[QQ] “I am currently working on three different assignments,” he says. “As an independent advisor on a large NT migration project, IT strategy for a central government directorate and a strategic electronic document management study for a large organisation.”[QQ] He says problems can arise when a long-term project loses its sponsor and nobody wants to take ownership, or when the consultant realises that what the client has asked for is not what they really want. “Then it’s all about trying to convince them that they need to look at something else,” he says.[QQ] What Milne enjoys most about his work is the variety and the challenge of different departments. “I like to feel that I am improving things. The higher up an organisation you work the more you can influence the outcome. You can actually make a difference – genuinely helping an organisation that needs quite a bit of help and working with in-house people to try and improve their skills.”[QQ] He thinks government staff are generally quite comfortable with consultants, although departments which don’t use them very much can be suspicious of them. “Things have changed – there is more recognition that consultants can make a difference if they are given the right structure to work within,” he says.[QQ] O’Higgins agrees. “The UK government is quite a sophisticated consultancy buyer when compared with other countries. The days when consultants were brought in to state the answer that internal people knew but couldn’t enunciate for political reasons are largely gone. There is a much better appreciation of what consultants can bring and, as services have been outsourced, a much greater willingness to understand that a strategic partnership with a business advisor can assist you to get value from that outsourcing contract.”[QQ] He adds: “There is also a much greater appreciation in government now of the Prime Minister’s statement that what matters is what works. Projects are involving much more complex simulation analysis of what might go wrong to ensure that they deliver against objectives. Once the public service began to move beyond the mandarin type of policy maker to someone who’s concerned with implementation the requirement to anticipate projects through their lifecycle and work out how to deliver them became more important.”[QQ] While public sector projects can be short, sharp studies lasting no more than 10 days, others can be extremely lengthy, and can be difficult to reconcile with individuals’ aspirations. Says O’Higgins: “Increasingly, particularly if a consultancy is successful with client relations, projects will be quite long, although they may consist of a number of separately tendered elements because of public procurement rules. The issue that gives you in relation to staff management and staff career development is how you reconcile long projects with the fact that consultants like to do different things.”[QQ] PA actively seeks to manage that process, he says, so that on long engagements, consultants, particularly young consultants, are moved to another assignment once they have completed one stage of the project. “Client relations are very much involved,” says O’Higgins. “The irony is that the better the consultant gets on with the client the harder it is to get the latter to agree to let them go. However, if it is discussed up front with the client in the context of our need to develop our staff, which is ultimately in the client’s interests, we can manage to rotate people around assignments or at least give them different roles within a particular project.”[QQ] Allred highlights an international dimension which is creeping into public sector roles, presenting consultants with global opportunities. “Each nation has justice, defence and benefits systems and there is no point in reinventing the wheel. So governments are starting to share best practice and we are seeing consultants travelling to Sweden, Australia and so on to find out about other systems and interchange ideas,” he says. It is a far cry from the dull image of the sector held by so many in the consultancy world.[QQ] [QQ] Mary Huntington is a freelance journalist. [QQ] Public procurement: beating the tender trap[QQ] A major headache on the business development front for consultancies working in the sector involves public procurement rules: tendering for a government contract can be a long and arduous process.[QQ] Says David Millard, practice development director of Hedra: “The public sector procurement of goods and services is constrained by rules set by the EC and the World Trade Organisation. Government departments have to go to competitive tender for everything and are compelled to advertise anything over a certain threshold in the official journal of the EC. To procure a consultancy project can take months and months.”[QQ] This has led public sector organisations, he says, to try to find ways to rationalise and streamline the process. One route is to establish framework or enabling agreements which have a competition up front and then produce a list of approved suppliers, from which government agencies can call off services without the need for further competition.[QQ] The CCTA’s S-Cat, which covers services, specifically consultancy, is one such enabling agreement. It lists 35 approved suppliers covering eight categories of services, from IS strategy to body shopping. The catalogue came into operation in December 1997. Says Millard: “Suppliers range from the Big Five to major IS/IT firms, to niche players.” Hedra put together the Cathedral Consortium with 10 other firms and successfully bid in all eight categories of S-Cat. “Since its inception the catalogue has turned over £20m of business,” says Millard, “of which our consortium has accounted for 10 percent.”[QQ] [QQ] Recruitment: “Many people wrongly turn their noses up at the public sector because they think it is dull and boring”[QQ] According to recruitment specialist Ian Tomisson, “Many people wrongly turn their noses up at the public sector because they think it is dull and boring. But most of it is about trying to make it more like the private sector, more efficient, effective and accountable.”[QQ] And the market is very buoyant, according to Michael O’Higgins of PA Consulting Group. He says the amount of work coming into his practice has increased dramatically in recent times. “I have 80 people in my group – a figure that has more than doubled in the last two years,” he says. The group also draws upon colleagues in IT and business consulting to enable it to respond effectively to client needs.[QQ] “In recruiting terms,” says Tomisson, there is quite a demand for people with IT experience for the public sector, and considerable demand for PFI experience in large contracts rather than with local authorities.” This, he says, does seem to be in short supply.[QQ] Caroline Evans, a recruitment consultant with Beament Leslie Thomas, also sees a need for recruits with experience of privatisation. “Consultancy firms want people who have been directly involved in the changes and instigation of privatisation initiatives or PFI programmes in areas like transport and defence,” she says. Local government and healthcare ticks along, she says, but is not so hot, probably because the larger consultancies are less interested in those sectors.[QQ] There is also some interest in people who really understand the issues involved in areas where regulations are changing and impacting.[QQ] Evans stresses, though, that the trend across the board is to find people with the consultancy way of being, who are motivated, with interpersonal and professional skills, and commercial credibility.[QQ] O’Higgins, for example, looks for bright, hardworking recruits with a good sense of humour and good interpersonals. “Financial analysis, IT, project and change management skills are all useful,” he says. “More senior staff need a significant understanding of the sector but at more junior levels we can supply that through exposure.”[QQ] Peter Allred of Deloitte Consulting, says that recruiting people from the civil service, for example, has to be very finely balanced. “What the civil service doesn’t like is for consultancies to feed recruits from its ranks straight back into projects within it,” he says.[QQ] Allred thinks that public sector consultants do not need to be any more politically aware than in other sectors. “Consulting is a people business and a good consultant can operate well in most sectors. You need people chemistry and good antennae,” he says.[QQ] As far as the increased accountability of the public sector is concerned, he says: “That is a discipline that any consultant should have, they should be able to defend their arguments. Guesstimates are not good enough.”[QQ] However, he would advise any would-be public sector consultant to make sure they understand the structure of government and some of the pressures on it. “It is a complex web: there are political, spending and public opinion stresses and strains. The government has to consider how Joe Public will view policy changes. Initiatives to cut down on benefit fraud or disability payments, for example, rouse public opinion and bring out hearts and minds.”[QQ] Consultants must have tolerance, he says, and understand all the different angles before they dive in with advice.

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