Government tech consultants need to be more like Mary Poppins

Too many public sector entities have become dependent on consultants who have outstayed their welcome, according to Romy Hughes of Brightman

Credit: GonzalezNovo/CC BY-SA 2.0

Are your consultants trying their hardest to make themselves redundant, or are they getting too comfortable?

This may sound strange, but a consultant’s job is to render themselves obsolete. 

They should follow the same work ethic as Mary Poppins – magically appearing when you need them (ideally floating down on a talking umbrella, but that isn’t essential), then working alongside you to solve a problem. 

Once you’re standing on your own two feet again, they float away the same way they arrived. You can say what you like about her unique approach to childcare, one thing Mary Poppins would never do is outstay her welcome or make you dependent on her. Her goal from day one was to ensure she was no longer needed.

You would be forgiven for thinking many in the public sector have never seen the Julie Andrews classic, as the sheer number of consultants in seemingly permanent roles is staggering. This is particularly noticeable if you have come from the private sector, where consultants rarely get so comfortable.

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On the one hand, it is great to see departments displaying so much self-awareness of their own limitations. If you lack the skills in-house, it is only sensible to bring in experts from outside the organisation. And, in fact, this level of self-awareness is something many private companies could benefit from. 

However, many of these ‘consultants’ are not consultants in the traditional sense: 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, many of them are not there to enable the organisation itself to complete a specific project, but are the ones delivering the project itself. The result is that many parts of the public sector have become entirely dependent on expensive consultants to function.

With many organisations now focusing on digital transformation projects, this reliance may only get deeper. Transformation relies on making changes far and wide within an organisation, each of which requires very specific technical and business skills – such as software development, change management, or risk management.

The public sector simply cannot afford for permanent consultants to be delivering every element of this change. 

‘That’s gratitude for you’
Austerity has to take its fair share of the blame for creating this consultant culture. 

The public sector recruitment freeze forced many units to simply fill their posts with consultants instead. It is ironic that a policy designed to save money resulted in employment costs going through the roof. 

What the recruitment freeze saved on one part of the balance sheet, it simply multiplied elsewhere, while also driving 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. 

Transformation relies on making changes far and wide within an organisation – the public sector simply cannot afford for permanent consultants to be delivering every element of this change 

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, once again, its impact will be minimal if the expectation placed on consultants remains the same.

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 and impart their expertise onto others. And, much like Mary Poppins, they should be there when needed, but their job is to ultimately make themselves redundant.

The next time you are 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 can hold a tune and hail from Edwardian London.


Sam Trendall

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