The Observer’s Nick Cohen has been having a go at management consultants again. He is particularly resentful about what he describes as their plundering of the public sector, claiming that government spending on management consultants is now running at around £2 billion a year.
There are, of course, good reasons why organisations sometimes hire management consultants. Whenever there is a project that is outside an organisation’s normal field of operation, it makes sense to bring in people who have done it before. It is cheaper and quicker than trying to train up your own people. Sometimes, especially for more complex and ambiguous change projects, it can be useful to have someone with an external perspective to challenge and stretch your thinking. All the same, £2 billion a year is a hell of a lot of money.
There may be another side to this story though. A friend, who was working for an organisation in the public sector, recently told me about meeting of senior managers in her department. The director called his team in and told them that there was to be a moratorium on using consultants. All those 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.
In many ways, consultants are easier to manage than permanent staff. If you have a personality clash with a consultant, or if he stops delivering what you need, you don’t have to go through a difficult performance management process, you can just ask the consultancy to send someone else. While they may be more highly paid then permanent staff, consultants are often rewarded by results. It is in their interests to be enthusiastic and committed to your project. They are also less likely to get disillusioned by the organisation and its politics as they know they will only be with you for a relatively short time. Consultants are rarely affected by the cynicism and surliness that sometimes sets in among the permanent staff.
Perhaps public sector managers are simply taking the line of least resistance. It could be that they just find it easier to use consultants than to deal with the motivation and performance issues among their own staff. If so, that will only change when managers acquire the skills and mindset necessary to tackle these difficult issues.
And how could they make that happen? Dunno, let’s call in some consultants and ask them…..