First of all, I have to admit, I am, at least part of the time, a consultant, so everything I write from here on in has to be conditioned by that. I am part of the problem, though I have to admit, a very small part indeed… But hold on, I haven’t told you what the problem is yet. And you may not even agree it is a problem!

This article was inspired by a very engaging interview with an American professor at LSE, who made some very hard-hitting points that resonated with me. The theme of the interview and I believe, the title of her book was something like: “The Infantilising of Government”  which takes some explaining, but I will try. 

The idea is this: a government department has what they see as a very difficult challenge: the examples chosen were UK based monsters of the challenge world: Covid and Brexit. They go into a planning meeting and decide:” Hmmm this is too hard for our team to solve let’s call in the experts” i.e. one of the world’s huge consulting firms: EY, PWC, DeLoitte, or McKinsey, let’s call them Big4. Now why they think Big4 has the answers that their own dedicated staff, with years of relevant experience, do not have, is the start of the problem. Yes, Big4 employ literally thousands of PhDs and MBAs but none of them work directly in the circumstances that the government is asking them to research, analyse and provide answers to. 

So, what happens: Big4 put together a high-powered team of very highly paid consultants, and create a plan of action to research all the variables, consider all the possible solutions and provide answers that the government (or in private enterprise, a major corporation) can implement. But where do they get the majority of their information? From the very people that they have supplanted, the relevant civil servants who are considered incompetent to provide the answers themselves. That is the second part of the problem. 

The third part, for me at least, is the financial aspect of this scenario: the consultants’ base salaries are probably already higher than the civil servants,  in all likelihood  2, 3 or 4 times higher, then the mark up by Big4 will take the fee base and double it at least, meaning the problem is being solved at a price that may be 10 times that of the in-house team, and wait, that team are still being paid for not doing the job that has been assigned to Big4! Are you beginning to get the picture? 

The fourth part is the implementation of the plan, which will devolve to – guess who- the redundant and incompetent team who were bypassed in the search for the “best” solutions, who now have to bite their insulted tongues and get on with processing plans which have been forced on them by their bosses who didn’t trust them to come up with the ideas and who know very well that the consultants have been paid millions for their advice. How would you feel about that scenario? And in fact it may be exacerbated by the possibility that the ideas presented my require the authors to sit in to interpret the outcomes proposed and get paid follow up fees because their presentations were not easily understood by the civil servant teams!

Now here we come to the last part of the scenario, where the term “infantilisation” comes in. By not trusting their internal teams, and not giving them the chance to develop their own expertise in these matters of national importance, the government has treated their own staff as infants – and even worse – kept them out of the learning process so they had no chance to learn and advance, make the necessary mistakes, learn from them and develop the necessary expertise, experience and perspective to run their department correctly. At the end of the consulting process, Big4 have now got that expertise, experience and the research, and know perfectly well they have to be re-engaged when any new problem related to this area re-occurs. And the “kids” in the actual department remain out of the loop, marginalized and still without the experience to take over. 

My contention is pretty simple, if this scenario is even half correct, that the money (taxpayers’ or shareholders’ money) is available and is being spent on building expertise of third parties rather than their own teams, so that they can say” we called in the experts” and thus wash their hands of actual responsibility, then governments and corporations are not acting in ways that benefit their stakeholders in the long term. That money should be spent on building internal capacity and allowing their own teams to do their jobs and make the necessary mistakes to build experience. The consultants should be brought in to teach the internal teams so that they can take over, not to replace them.

Now I do not in any way blame the Big4, they are behaving as private enterprise should, responding to demand and supplying the services requested at prices that they can negotiate. And they do it very well, most of the time…there are some notable disasters! No the blame goes top those who don’t believe in their own teams, don’t provide them with the where-with-all – and the trust – to do it themselves.  The result: well in the UK examples, the Brexit outcome is an unmitigated disaster, and the Covid result poor at best. Both cost the UK taxpayers millions of pounds in wasted fees. Or am I missing something? 

Alistair Speirs

Alistair Speirs

Alistair has been in the publishing, advertising and PR business for 25 years. He started NOW! Magazines as the region’s preferred community magazine.