Consulting and Consultants

Old habits die hard. The one sure way to escape responsibility is to appoint a consultant. If you follow the recommendations of the consultant no one will blame you; the old adage is true: no one got fired for buying IBM.

There is a difference between taking advice and appointing a consultant. You need advice in areas that need specialist knowledge. Doctors, lawyers, surveyors and accountants are all qualified to give advice about their particular speciality. Only an idiot would ask an accountant how to cure a disease or ask a doctor how to draft a commercial agreement. A general practitioner would use a consultant who had specialist knowledge of the disease, and a solicitor would use a barrister who had specialist knowledge of a particular field of law. They would not seek a consultant simply out of habit, or should not.

Consultants operate as generalists pretending to be specialists. The bigger the enterprise the more the consultant can charge for his fees. Some management consultants (it is claimed) do no more than ask everyone in the business to which they are providing consultancy services and then pick out the good bits of what the staff told them, regurgitate it and dress it up in an impressive looking report.

Governments are particularly scared of making bad decisions and being known to have made bad decisions and so they call upon massive firms of consultants (usually engendered from the accounting profession) to provide massive consultancy. The United Kingdom Government is particularly good at employing consultants who have managed to wreck many policies and initiatives with their consultancy. At the last count £800 million was spent on consultants of one kind or another last year by a government committed to reducing the expenditure on consultants.

In fairness to the government the spending on consultants is significantly less this past year than it was the year before. However, old habits die hard and the usual suspects (KPMG, PCW, Deloitte and Ernst & Young) are being employed to advise on projects and initiatives such as HS2 and changes in the benefit system, because it seems that these skills are not available within the civil service. If that is true it does not say much for the skill level of the civil service, or is that comment unfair?

There is another dimension to this appointment of consultants which should always be kept firmly in mind.  All of the large consultancy firms have employed people who were senior civil servants. A cynic would say that these former civil servants were simply employed because they had the kind of connections with government that could ensure plenty of future consultancy appointments at the best rates. A cynic would probably be right. A cynic would also say that employing a consultant whose team id largely made up of former civil servants is simply a means of extracting money from the public purse.

In truth, if the civil service were of high quality and did their job, there would be precious luittle need for any government employed civil servants.

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