Are consultants milking the UK government for billions for very little result? Brian Appleyard has a provocative piece in the Sunday Times Magazine which argues that they are: Blair's barmy army. While he exaggerates the failures of consultancy and largely ignores the succeses, there are some telling blows. He summarises the problem thus:
Everybody agrees, the MCA included, that consultants can be useful if – and only if – their task is tightly defined and controlled. But, overwhelmingly, government contracts have been vague and subject to constant change. Like your local builder, consultants quietly add on huge costs every time anybody makes a remark about what must be done. Furthermore, they have so far done so with an almost complete lack of accountability.
...The whole thing has simply been the result of a collective delusion: that there are quasi-scientific, objective ways of managing human affairs that transcend all considerations of culture, ethos and environment. Consultants sold this lie, government bought it, and we’re paying for it.
And the solution?
What we need, say some, is our equivalent of America’s Clinger-Cohen Act. This was introduced by two Republican senators in 1996 after a series of cases in which consultancies ripped off the federal government. The act forced all departments to monitor and control every project, effectively imposing a proper management structure where none had existed before. There is no prospect of that happening here and, seemingly, little political will to shake off the burden of the deals already done.
...But there are hopeful signs. Richard Granger is now imposing more stringent controls on contracts for the NHS computer. The failure of the NHS to show anything like the signs of improvement to be expected from Brown’s billions is starting to sink in. Mark Serwotka’s union is threatening a strike ballot in January. There can be no doubt that a project like the NHS computer would be a fantastic idea if it can be made to work, which, sadly, it can’t.