A recent National Audit Office report on departmental spending on consultants in preparation for our exit from the EU told a familiar story: an apparently big number (£97m); confusion in Whitehall about the data; a complex procurement system and a list of well-known global firms that dominate the market.
And there was the NAO’s usual disclaimer that its investigations do not review the “value for money” of this expenditure.
Our media picked up the story, as it has done many times over recent years. The use of management consultants by government is controversial and attracts significant press coverage and political dispute.
Many bash the consultants because they don’t like the policy (or government) they are working for. Others confuse them with the contractors who can hang around bureaucracies for years on a generous daily rate.
And some argue that private sector businesses cannot properly serve the public interest, or that there is a self-serving and secretive elite of managers and consultants who have supplanted democratic politicians.
For more than 10 years I worked to manage these controversies as chief executive of the consulting industry’s trade body, the MCA. My higher ambition – futile, some thought – was to help the public be confident that consultants deliver value for money and also enable the industry to benefit from a sustainable flow of challenging and impactful work.
Strikingly, despite all the noise on this topic, there has been little serious examination of the role that consultancies have played in the public sector, the impact of their interventions or the motivations of those who buy their services.
“There is a consistent tendency within the public sector to engage consultancies only after key decisions about policy and methodology have been made”
As Antonio Weiss, himself a management consultant with 2020 Delivery, points out in his new and important book, academics have hitherto had “relatively little to say about the use of management consultants by the state”. The few researchers who have strayed into this area have adopted a simplistic viewpoint rather than an enquiring mind.
Weiss tells the story of the public sector’s engagement with external advice and expertise since the 1960s, and the generations of consulting firms that have evolved to support it.
He starts with Harold Wilson’s drive to improve productivity and the machinery of government – he reveals that Tony Benn was a big supporter of bringing in the consultants. He then looks at NHS structural reform in the 1970s and the rise of computerisation and operational work in the 1980s, particularly reforms to the administration of benefits.
He ends with an insightful chapter on outsourcing and the focus on service delivery, privatisation, targets and public sector management that dominated the period from Thatcher to Brown, accompanied by dramatic increases in spending on consultancy.
Weiss debunks a number of myths. He finds no evidence, for instance, that consultants have manipulated the policymaking process or set the reform agenda. The reality is more prosaic.
Indeed, there is a consistent tendency within the public sector to engage consultancies only after key decisions about policy and methodology have been made. As he puts it: “Politicians set the direction of travel, civil servants drew up the high-level plans, and consultants worked on implementing these plans, in partnership with the civil service.”
Nor are consultants even particularly involved in the upper reaches of high politics or policy, though there is a strong argument that they should be. As Weiss concludes, “it is the mundane and administrative parts of the British state which have been most heavily influenced by management consultants”.
More serious is the evidence that, by engaging external support, the public sector becomes dependent on their skills and struggles to retain or develop key capacity in-house. Despite numerous urgings from the MCA, the civil service has not articulated what it believes its core competencies should be, nor how it will use consultancy to supplement and support them.
Consultancies and their public sector clients should certainly not be complacent, and they should be doing much more to increase levels of public and political confidence in their work.
But they can be grateful that Weiss has unearthed many more of the facts and turned his research into a compelling narrative.
❱ Management Consultancy and the British State: A Historical Analysis Since 1960
❱ Antonio E Weiss
❱ Palgrave Macmillan