Plans unveiled for Whitehall ‘consulting hub’

Written by Beckie Smith on 11 March 2021 in News

Government to bring together small team of experts 

Credit: Sgconlaw/CC BY-SA 3.0

The government has published the first details of plans for a civil service “consulting hub” intended to reduce its reliance on external management consultants.

The government consulting hub – a “highly capable, respected cadre of civil servants providing a centre of expertise for government on commissioning and working with consultants” – could be up and running within a year, according to a recent Treasury minute.

It will include a “small cadre” of consulting experts who will be deployed to lend extra skills and capacity to departments and projects that need them instead of, or as well as, private consultancies.

A strategic triage process for the hub is in development now, with a pilot expected imminently. The pilot will inform a longer-term business case for “likely implementation in 2021-22”, the document said. 

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The hub, initial plans for which were leaked last year, is one strand of a plans to shore up skills in the civil service and reduce the need to call in costly external help. The government said it would develop a Consultancy Playbook, either as a standalone document or as part of the existing Outsourcing Playbook.

And to ensure money that does go to external companies is spent effectively, the Crown Commercial Service’s next framework for management consultancy will include open-book accounting provisions, the Treasury minute said. The framework, MCF3, will go live in September.

“The Cabinet Office recognises that results can be suboptimal when consulting firms are engaged without a clear idea of the desired outcome,” the document said. “The government is ensuring that spending proposals build in the requirement that consultants pass on their skills and learning to civil servants at the end of the engagement to avoid repeated use on similar challenges.”

The plans were revealed in response to a recommendation from parliament’s Public Accounts Committee to consider and come up with a strategy to reduce the cost of plugging civil service skills gaps with management consultants.

The December report in which the recommendation was made said the government had consistently failed to address a lack of specialist skills in the civil service, leading to waste, delays, budgetary overruns and an over-reliance on management consultancies. PAC urged the government to prioritise dealing with these skills gaps as part of its efforts to reform the civil service

In November, it was reported that the Cabinet Office was laying the groundwork for an in-house consultancy arm in a bid to stem the use of external consultants, following Cabinet Office minister Lord Theodore Agnew’s claim that its reliance on companies was “infantilising” the civil service.

A month later – following the departure of the prime minister’s chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings – it was revealed the plans had been scaled back so the service would provide advice on the use of management consultants, and replace them in some scenarios.

The Treasury minute describes a service that appears to be in line with the December reports. 

Enhanced workforce planning
The Treasury minute also revealed plans to “enhance strategic workforce planning” by May. Cabinet Office officials are now working on improving the annual workforce projections exercise, it said, which will improve understanding of key skills and capability gaps.

The work will inform civil service reform, including efforts to recruit staff with new skills and capabilities outside London and the southeast and future training.

Responding to PAC’s recommendation to identity and resolve skills gaps, the government also pointed to the establishment of its latest training overhaul. It said the Government Skills and Curriculum Unit, launched in January, would “ensure entry routes to the Civil Service are rigorous; induction is mandatory and high quality; and that technical skills, knowledge and ‘tradecraft’ are defined, assured, and accessible”. 

While it agreed – in full or in part – with many of PAC’s recommendations, the government rejected the MPs’ call for the Cabinet Office and civil service functions to work together urgently to complete capability blueprints within a few months.

“Seven years on from their introduction, functions still have not developed clear plans to help maximise their impact and lack strategic direction,” the PAC report said, urging the Cabinet Office to confirm work had been completed by April.

In response, the Cabinet Office said heads of function were “formulating, implementing and publishing their own capability blueprints” or strategic plans. They would need extra time beyond April to complete this work, it said, because of contextual pressures such as Covid-19 and the availability of workforce data.

It said the commercial function had made the most progress, with a commercial blueprint already in place; that the finance function was set to publish its capability blueprint some time in 2021-22; and that the HR function intended to publish one in 2021.

Responding to PAC’s call to set out how it would improve progression and retention for civil servants from a diverse range of backgrounds, the government said the next civil service inclusion strategy “is likely to focus on the themes of talent, fairness and inclusion”.

The strategy, which is in development now and will replace the 2017-2020 civil service diversity and inclusion strategy, will also “set out a vision for a modern civil service where everyone can thrive no matter what their background or working style and where workplaces are safe, open and inclusive”.

The plan will employ an evidence-led approach “while also offering a broader view of diversity, including regional and cognitive diversity”, it said.


About the author

Beckie Smith is acting deputy editor of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @Beckie__Smith.

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