Civil service “infantilised” by use of consultants, Cabinet Office minister says

Letter seen by the Guardian criticises official capacity to deliver Brexit
Lord Agnew. Photo Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

By Richard Johnstone

30 Sep 2020

The civil service’s reliance on consultants has “infantilised” officials and is stopping them from being able to work on the most challenging issues in government, Cabinet Office minister Lord Agnew has said.

In a letter to the Alex Chisholm, the chief operating officer of the civil service, and Gareth Rhys Williams, chief commercial officer, Agnew said a reliance on external consultants is “providing poor value for money”, but also “infantilises the civil service by depriving our brightest people of opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues”.

In the letter seen by the Guardian, he said the government seemed to be ineffectual using graduate Fast Stream civil servants to carry out work that is outsourced to consultants, “using similar people at a vastly inflated cost”.

“This is unacceptable,” the letter stated.

He said the Cabinet Office would be reviewing the cost controls on consultancy spending “to provide minsters with confidence that departments are beating down on unnecessary spending and instead look to build internal capacity”.

He said data would also need to be improved to do this, and that Cabinet Office officials would be “engaging [Chisholm] in work to develop clear, consistent coding systems so that in the future we can assure ourselves that consultancy and professional spending is not misleading or classified under categories that are not subject to Cabinet Office spend control approval”.

The letter acknowledged that that spending on consultants has risen in part because the UK is leaving the EU. CSW reported last year that government spending on consultants and temporary staff rose by nearly 20% to hit £1.8bn, as departments drafted in outside help for Brexit preparations and IT projects.

Agnew criticised the extent of external help the civil service has used to prepare for EU exit. “Four years after voting to leave the European Union it is unacceptable that the civil service still has not developed the capability to deliver this through our own civil servants,” he wrote.

He said departments should name a lead official “to work with teams in the Cabinet Office and the Treasury to develop and implement proposals to address these issues”. The letter, sent on 15 September, called for these proposals to be submitted by October.

Commenting on Agnew’s letter, Dave Penman, the head of the FDA union for senior civil servants, told the Guardian that “consultant spending is one of many tools that will have been used to respond to the demands from ministers and can only be looked at in the context of the environment faced at that time”.

He added: “Ministers need to understand the challenges that have been placed on the civil service if they seriously want to make rational reform, rather than lecturing departments for taking the measures that were necessary to deliver a previous government’s priorities.”

A government spokesperson told the paper: “Since 2010, the government has taken considerable steps to reduce unnecessary spending and protect taxpayers’ money.

"Ministers are concerned that government is too reliant on consultants and have written to departments to make clear that services should only be procured when external expertise is essential and represents value for money. We want to harness the wide range of skills within the civil service.”

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