It’s time for the public sector to think differently about how it uses
consultants. This change is vital if consultants are going to make the
contribution they should be making to current government objectives in terms of
providing value for money for taxpayers, streamlining the public sector and
generally running the country more efficiently.
Above all, government needs to spend less time commissioning reports from
consultants and more time thinking about just what it wants consultants to do
for them, not only in a practical sense but also at a strategic level.
On the one hand, government is aware that consultants can offer in-depth
expertise and value for money. On the other, government, by definition, contains
politically-minded people, and many of these people baulk at the idea of a
consultant earning in a day (or at least his or her consultancy charging out)
more money than many government employees earn in a week.
Consultants are for many politicians the equivalent of a sitting duck.
Whenever the debate starts focusing around what government is spending on
consultants, you can be pretty sure that most, if not all, the emphasis will be
on the sums of money involved and very little on the benefits derived.
The simple fact is that government is too willing to engage consultancies not
for the in-depth quality of the work and thinking the consultancy can offer but
simply as convenient manpower substitutes.
What the public sector really needs from consultants is something it all too
often doesn’t actually get: genuine skills transfer deriving from relatively
short-term projects that don’t use dozens or hundreds of consultants but use the
right consultants to get the job done.
Skills transfer means precisely that at the end of the day the consultants’
skills should be embedded in the minds, and ideally also in the processes, of
the public sector organisation.
When looking at the kind of consultancies that can offer this type of skills
transfer and service, it’s not a question of size. Some smaller consultancies
are good at it; so are some larger consultancies. It’s more a question of
The question a public sector body really needs to ask, and answer, when it is
contemplating hiring a consultant is: What it is I really need to get done?
This will not necessarily be easy to answer. But you do need to ask and, to
get maximum benefit out of asking, you need to think hard about the type of
answer you need.
The crucial distinction to make is between hiring consultants to effect some
key change related to a vital strategic objective, and hiring consultants simply
to carry out a job that you could do yourselves if you had the manpower.
This latter use of consultants is merely manpower substitution, whereas the
former would effect a lasting and major change that would go well beyond mere
manpower substitution. It’s like the difference between an army commander
preparing for a big battle by doing some good hard strategic thinking about how
to overcome the enemy’s strategic or logistical weaknesses, or simply hiring a
bunch of mercenaries to undertake the fighting.
The strategic use of consultants is bound to be more cost-effective in the
long run, because active strategic change will (or should) result from it. Seek
consultants that can offer genuine strategic insight and thought leadership.
After all, isn’t that what a consultant really is?
Also, think twice about hiring a consultancy unless there are people in your
own organisation who can learn from the consultants and, after the consultants
have departed, can take over what the consultants were doing. Too often there is
nobody on the government side to be the recipient of skills transfer.
Having decided that you want to appoint a consultancy and are doing so for
the right reasons, how do you decide which particular consultancy is likely to
be best for you? The guidelines in the box above are all vitally important.
Ultimately, consultants should help make the public sector bodies for which
they are working more agile. When consultancies can offer all this to public
sector organisations, then they will have staked a real claim to be deserving of
the privilege of consulting to government.
And it is a privilege. After all, it’s your country.
Andrew Rogoyski is head of the government practice at business and IT
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