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We are delighted to feature this guest post from one of our readers, Romy Hughes, director at change management consultancy, Brightman.

If you have primarily worked in the private sector, one thing that will stand out if you ever switch over to the public sector will be the sheer number of consultants – and many of these consultants appear to be in permanent roles. This may sound strange, but a consultant’s job is to make themselves redundant.

These “consultants” are not consultants in the traditional sense i.e. expert advisers brought in for the specific purpose of introducing a new system, process or methodology which the permanent workforce will then be left to deliver. On the contrary, these consultants are not there to enable the organisation to deliver a specific project; they are the ones delivering the project itself. The problem with this approach is that the public sector has become dependent on these consultants for the majority of its day-to-day operations. This difference is particularly noticeable if you have come from the private sector, where consultants rarely get so comfortable.

On the one hand, it is great to see public sector departments displaying so much self-awareness over their own limitations. If you lack the skills in-house, it is only sensible to bring in experts from outside. With many public sector organisations now focusing on digital transformation projects, this reliance will only get deeper. Digital transformation relies on making changes far and wide within the organisation, each of which require very specific technical and business skills (i.e. software development, change management, risk management, etc.). The public sector simply cannot afford for permanent consultants to be delivering every element of this change. It should not become dependent on consultants.

The role of austerity, IR35 changes and procurement practices

Austerity has to take its fair share of the blame for creating this “consultant culture.” The public sector’s recruitment freeze forced many organisations to fill their posts with consultants instead of employees. After all, simply turning the recruitment taps off does not remove the demand for people. If you can get the same people via another means, you would.

It is ironic that a policy designed to save money resulted in employment costs going through the roof. Where the recruitment freeze saved money on one part of the balance sheet it simply multiplied elsewhere. At the same time it drove many employees down the IR35 route (only to get ‘clobbered’ by the Exchequer further down the line). So not only did austerity drive up the employment costs for the public sector by forcing many staff into consultancy roles, it drove up the employees’ tax bills too through IR35.

Unfortunately, austerity alone cannot be blamed for creating the current culture. The consultants will not suddenly up and leave or become employees the moment the government loosens the purse strings. Some will of course, but not enough to make any meaningful change. IR35 will be a much bigger driver, but again, it’s impact will be minimal if the expectation placed on consultants remains the same. We await to see if the new UK government will go through with its promised review of IR35.

How consultants are procured is also very important. The way in which consultants are found and employed will determine the sort of consultants you bring into the organisation, and ultimately whether they meet their “consultant” job description or start to make themselves too comfortable. The best approach is:

  • only source consultants directly, or through a smaller consultancy with which you can build a relationship
  • pay more attention to the role you are hiring for
  • don’t just pick up the phone to one of the big players and tell them you need a few bodies for two months that can develop in Java
  • have a very clear job description with project objectives
  • make sure the objectives include training your staff and offloading the day-to-day operations to them
  • build redundancy as an objective!

Back to basics

The public sector needs to go back to basics and ask itself, “what is the role of a consultant?” Consultants are there to enable and facilitate change within the organisation. They are there to set the wheels in motion, impart their expertise onto others, and then to leave. Don’t forget that last part!

The next time you’re planning a project, take a long hard look at your resources and where your gaps are. Would you be better served bringing in a manager or a developer with the specific expertise you need? If you deem the project specifically warrants the skills of a specialist consultant, just make sure they don’t get too comfortable.

Disclaimer: The opinions express in this post represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of Public Spend Forum

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