INTOUCH : Comfort blankets and scapegoats

Are they necessity or addiction? Comfort blanket or scapegoat? When do public sector managers really need to ‘bring in the consultants’ and how do they know when they’re getting good value?
The amount of public spending that ends up in consultants’ pockets is always something of thorny issue. massive blowout in central government spending on private consultants in the UK recently prompted the National Audit Office (NAO) there to turn its scrutiny on the question of value for money – and its conclusion was pretty negative.
In fact in report released late last year, the NAO was scathing about the failure of Whitehall departments to analyse the worth of consultants they hired – or to even talk to each other about who was getting which consultants to do what.
That failure to communicate is of particular interest for visiting British expert Andrew Sturdy who has been carrying out ‘fly-on-the-wall’ studies of the relations between public clients and private consultants and was involved in the NAO audit. He says it’s not just matter of scoping the project to identify efficiencies gained or quality of services improved.
“One of the big factors in this is the idea of learning from the experience so you don’t need consultants for the same thing again – so it’s the knowledge transfer issue which is my particular research focus.”
There is, he says, lot of lip service paid to organisational knowledge development but very few systematic practices to achieve it. Everyone agrees it’s good thing – but it’s also apt to be first up against the wall when budgets get cut. The silo mentality of many government departments doesn’t help.
“Consultants can go from one local authority or government department to another doing exactly the same thing though you would think some of these people, particularly in the context of public service, would talk to each other and share the knowledge around.”
The irony is that the more pressure managers are under to perform, the more likely they are to draw on the services of consultants – both because it’s useful to have an extra pair of hands or feeling that you are in control, even comfort blanket in terms of decision support – or if all fails, scapegoat to blame, says Sturdy.
“The silo mentality is also reflected in how people use consultants as political pawns – to give additional ‘objective’ weight to changes in IT structures, for instance.”
One of the big myths for him about consultants is their reputation as “the shock troops of new management practices and ideas” because unless they enjoy very long-term and trusting relationship with their clients, consultants generally err on the side of conservatism. He also notes that issues of accountability (for success or failure) are less straightforward when it comes to management consultancy as opposed to, say, engineering projects.
“That’s problem because management – and I’m not sure your readers would subscribe to this view – is inherently ambiguous. It’s not black and white science. That makes it difficult to do cost-benefit analysis.”
While it’s important to carry out an assessment of the need for consultants before calling them in – to “inoculate” people against just going for the latest consultancy fad, there’s also need to recognise the psychological or emotional aspects involved in the choice to hire consultants, says Sturdy.
“It’s getting balance and being aware of the dangers of becoming addicted to consultants.”
And beyond the usual checklists used to manage and measure projects, the key thing for Sturdy is the issue of how best to address knowledge transfer.
“In public sector context – ask would other departments benefit from this or could we have joint project with different departments. It should be easier [than in the private sector] for people to share that knowledge and to be aware of the opportunity to learn something – as well as the danger of dependency.”
•For more on the British study, go to

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