UK Government “Omnishambles” – are consultants to blame?

We keep off pure politics here generally. But we've had a slightly naughty thought over the last few weeks, as we've watched the emerging UK government "omnishambles" as Ed Milliband called it. The pile-up of the budget, the pasty and Granny taxes, charity taxation, the petrol "crisis", extradition of Abu Qatada, have combined to give the impression of a government that doesn't quite know what its doing.  (By the way, if you want to see the first use of "Omnishambles" here it is, in the wonderful BBC comedy show, The Thick of It. It is near the end of this clip, but be warned, there is VERY bad language here).

Why are things going wrong? Is this a failure of competence - if so, why is it now hitting the government and the media? Well, I blame the consultants - but maybe not in the way you would expect.

It may be down to demand management - a great tactic to save money quickly. Just stop people spending money - that is, without a doubt, the quickest way of reducing costs. And that's what Francis Maude and the Cabinet Office have been doing very effectively since the election in 2010. They clamped down on spend in categories like temporary staff, advertising and consultancy. But the problem with demand management is you may know what you've saved, but it's a lot harder to know what the opportunity cost of that saving may have been.

So what was the cost of stopping advertising? Sales don't collapse the day you halt TV advertising of your confectionery brand; but stop for 2 years and you will see an effect. How do you identify what the temporary staff or consultants would have contributed if you had spent that money?

Has the omnishambles been caused then, at least in part, by the lack of consultants in Whitehall? Consultants who - as I know from experience - did a lot of the hard analytical work behind the scenes in the past. Certainly under New Labour, budget proposals for instance would have been thoroughly checked out by the folk from PwC, Ernst & Young or whoever, before they got near the budget speech.

That's not to knock civil servants but there's fewer of them around anyway given the cutbacks, and when there are exceptional peaks in workload - like before the budget - there's not a lot of spare capacity around of the quality that can tell a Minister that an idea is flawed.

So perhaps we're now seeing the effect of two years of demand management in the consulting area. And, interestingly, I was told just the other day that the CFO of one of the biggest government Departments has just told Cabinet Office that, "we have things to do, we need people to do it". So we may see consulting spend rising again shortly anyway...

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Voices (3)

  1. Edward Harkins:

    Whenever this seemingly perennial and distracting activity comment about consultants comes up I pose a counter question. ‘Why are we talking about blaming the consultants rather than those who appoint the consultants?’
    If an organisation is inept enough to appoint dodgy consultants and be unable to discern between good and bad advice… well isn’t that organisation going to come to grief in one form or another, sooner or later? (and actually wouldn’t it be best that this was sooner?).
    Another aspect of the ‘dodgy client’ is the odd re-commissioning of the same consultants or sets or consultants no matter how poor their advices seemed to be…. as I say, odd, that.

  2. Final Furlong:

    I sense that many of the consultants to which you refer – the auditors, analysts, and mathematicians – are still being used in abundance. In fact, I don’t sense it, I know they are. Even McKinseys are still being used to shape and scribe certain strategies.

    This is all about change management and, specifically, communications ie: taking people with you. The Government seems to be spending far too much time explaining their actions than they are on implementing them. The charity piece (in relation to the rich dodging tax through complex charity vehicles) makes sense (to a degree), but they tried to explain it long after announcing the action they were planning to take, hence it received a wide, negative reaction.

    You can’t expect the civil service to manage and deliver change – it hasn’t been proactively up-skilled to do this.

    You only need to take a cursory glance in the direction of the NHS transformation to realise how truly hopeless the civil service is at shaping and implementing change. They should have spent a couple of million with consultants to get it right from the outset, but they will now spend billions as a result of trying to do it themselves….

  3. dan2:

    My prediction that the good times would roll ~1 year prior to next election on basis departments would need to show something had been delivered.

    So another I reckon another year or so before the purse strings open again (nothing really changes).

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