There will be a few management consultants working on government projects thinking, “There but for the grace of God” this morning. Earlier this week, someone from PA Consulting apparently lost a memory stick containing the names, addresses and dates of birth of 33,000 criminals.
This raises a number of questions, one of which must be why the hell a consultant from a private company was carrying this sort of information around on a memory stick in the fist place.
According to the Telegraph:
A Home Office spokesman said that the memory stick had been lost by PA Consulting, a private company they employed to track and analyse serious and prolific offenders in the “JTrack” programme. The Home Office sent the personal details on the criminals to the company on a secure encrypted email, which was then transferred in an unencrypted form on to the memory stick, which was then lost.
What? Does the Home Office really employ PA Consulting to track offenders?
Last September, the Home Office’s JTrack newsletter reported that PA had won the contract to develop and maintain the JTrack system. Other Home Office websites refer to PA’s role in developing the system. That’s fair enough. That’s what the big consultancies are good at. But that is completely different from actually doing the tracking of offenders.
Increasingly, though, the public sector is blurring the line between external support and hands-on implementation. Consultants, especially those at the more junior levels, often start off with a specific brief to work on a clear fixed-term project but, over time, end up acting in day-to-day line roles, carrying out tasks which would normally be done by civil servants. Friends of mine have spent months, and sometimes more than two years, working on government projects in which the scope changed and their roles gradually became indistinguishable from those of the civil servants with whom they shared an office. As one of them explained to me, “The department is using us as Higher Executive Officers.”
This anecdote, recounted by a friend in the public sector, is illuminating. In the department where she was working, the director called his senoir managers in and told them that there was to be a moratorium on using consultants. All consultants currently working in the organisation were to leave at the end of their current contracts and no more were to be taken on.
The managers looked at each other aghast. Eventually, one woman broke the stunned silence and said what everyone else was thinking, “Oh God! If we get rid of all the consultants we’ll have to rely on our permanent staff.”
I can’t imagine what a consultant from PA was doing with all that personal data. You don’t need that sort of information if you are simply maintaining and developing the system. Any transfer of data between Home Office systems should not require memory sticks or even emailed files.
I suspect that this is another example of the scope-creep that I described above. It would not surprise me if, over the last year or so, the consultants have moved from providing advice and systems support to doing some of the Home Office’s day-to-day work.
As long as government departments use consultants to paper over the cracks in their organisations, problems like this will occur over and over again.