UK considers in-house consultancy amidst No10 in-fighting

By on 13/11/2020
Dominic Cummings. (Image © Steve Taylor/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire).

A new element of the UK’s civil service reform agenda emerged this week, as one of the project’s principal architects announced his departure from government.

Dominic Cummings, the former Vote Leave chief who has been PM Boris Johnson’s lead adviser since last summer, told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Thursday that he would be leaving government by Christmas. Although he told her that he’d been planning to quit anyway, reporters have also been briefed in recent weeks that after Brexit he would want to focus on civil service reform and setting up a UK tech and research and development (R&D) accelerator.

Cummings left after a high-profile squabble between his Number 10 ally Lee Cain, Johnson’s director of communications, and other influential figures including incoming PM spokesperson Allegra Stratton and Johnson’s girlfriend Carrie Symonds – a former Tory communications chief. His departure may ease the path to agreeing a UK-EU trade deal, and is likely to influence the way in which the government’s civil service reform plans are developed and communicated.

The adviser has long criticised key aspects of the UK civil service, pushing a model under which political leaders have much more say in senior appointments. Since Johnson came to government, a number of top officials have been forced out while political allies of the PM have been brought into top jobs under the public appointments system. Earlier this month, commissioner for public appointments Peter Riddell warned in a letter that “some at the centre of government” want to “tilt the competition system in their favour to appoint their allies.”

Following Cummings’ exit, the messaging around civil service reform is likely to soften; the advisor has an abrasive style, and has consistently used leaks to friendly press to get information out. But reform planning will continue: not only do leading officials recognise that the civil service needs to change, but the agenda has firm support from Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and the department’s non-executive directors.

Cabinet Office consultants

Meanwhile, another thread in the government’s reform plans has come to the surface with news that a Cabinet Office minister is exploring the establishment of a new team of in-house “consultants” in a bid to curb reliance on private firms.

The new unit, provisionally dubbed “Crown Consultancy”, would recruit graduates to lead projects across Whitehall, the Financial Times reported. “There’s a lot of reliance on consultancies,” one official told the paper. “It would be sensible to look at what we can do internally, rather than externally.”

The government has come under fire recently for its extensive use of private consultancy firms, with a record £2.6bn (US$3.4bn) spent on eight big firms between 2016 and 2020. According to the National Audit Office, between 2016 and 2018 the amount paid out to consultancies trebled from around £500m to £1.5bn (US$660m-2bn) – a consequence of the heavy and novel workloads created by Brexit. The pandemic has only exacerbated this trend, with the government choosing to commission private suppliers to advise on the response to Coronavirus and deliver large-scale projects such as NHS Test and Trace.

Cabinet Office and Treasury minister Lord Agnew, who has been highly critical of the use of consultants, is said to be leading the project. He recently wrote that consultants provide “poor value for money” and their use “infantilises the civil service by depriving our brightest people of opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues”. Civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm also noted last week that the government’s commissioning of consultancy firms was now at “peak use”, and pledged to scale back in the coming years.

Questions raised

But some have raised questions about the wisdom of such a move. In a series of tweets Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the Institute for Government (IfG) and a former senior civil servant, said the in-house consultancy “could be the germ of a good idea” but questioned how recruitment and training processes would differ from those of the traditional fast stream in-take.

“If those skills are useful, why not just improve the fast stream training to include them?” she asked. “It is interesting that consultancies recruit from the same pool as the civil service but then immediately charge them out at five times the salary.”

And will the government pay enough “to tempt people who have these skills to come and set up this operation and transfer their skills?” Rutter asked. If not, there’s a risk that the government invests in training its consultants, only to see them join the private consultancies it is trying to move away from.

“Finally, does this risk losing some of the good parts of employing external consultants – an independent view, a fresh pair of eyes and an ability to transfer experiences across sectors,” she tweeted.

Dr Catherine Haddon, IfG senior fellow, tweeted her view that the government “should avoid spending money on consultancy staff that don’t add much.”

“But it has had many teams in the centre in a consultancy style approach. This won’t solve if it just adds more units with badly managed projects and no clear strategy,” she added.

In many cases, the use of private consultants is also a consequence of policy decisions made by the government – which has, for example, chosen to overlook existing NHS laboratories and local authority public health teams in favour of commissioning testing and contact-tracing from consultancies at the national level. An in-house advisory and management consultancy won’t reduce government’s dependence on external consultants unless policies are designed to make full use of existing public sector capabilities.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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