Do consultants help avoid public sector politicisation?

By Helena Cain

Thursday November 19, 2020


Part five of our week-long series: What if it happened here?

When it’s controversial, do you engage your consultants to kick the can or carry it?

Yes, it’s a multiple choice:

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As a senior public servant, your politician strongly suggests that you drive an obviously political initiative – that may or may not go against your department’s earlier advice. Do you:

A             Accept that this is the nature of work for the modern public service and do an excellent job?

B             Stand your frank and fearless ground, and then accept another strong suggestion to change careers?

C             De-risk your frank and fearless ground by engaging a consultant?

If you chose C, then you are not alone.

There are several good reasons to select option C

If you have some doubts about the public interest value of an initiative, then asking a consultant to ‘kick this can along the road’ for you can deliver the following benefits.

Firstly, consultants love to engage stakeholders, run consultation processes, conduct user-centred design, facilitate design and solution workshops and manage communication on behalf of a department. We love doing it because we know it will get you the better result if the goal really is to serve citizens.

This enables the department to progress the initiative in a way that seeks to build the case and glean the insight they need to do a good job, resulting in a report and recommendations from an impartial third party, through a neutral process.

It also allows a risk-averse department to manage a process at arm’s length, giving them time and space to gauge the ongoing risk, once the work is underway.

Another benefit of having a consultant do this work for you is that citizens might have more trust that the answer hasn’t already been decided internally if they see that the department is investing in an independent engagement process, and they might also be more honest during the engagement process if it’s being run by a third party.

I think the greatest benefit of choosing this Option C is that the process is likely to help you surface a new option, offering a different policy or initiative design that could meet the political needs of government, in a way that best serves citizens.

For example, if the idea of a new national identify card initiative surfaced, which we know is potentially sensitive – a consultant could very effectively conduct the nationwide engagement with citizen stakeholders to understand the risks, benefits, issues, concerns, opportunities and creative exploration to inform an options paper.

This could reduce the perceived reputation risk to the department, inform a better solution, while at the same time satisfy the immediate needs of the political masters or mistresses.

However, let’s look at the darker side of engaging a consultant – to carry the can

To illustrate this point, let’s play another game: Name the Consultant!

For those of you who have been around for a while — who do you think of when someone mentions:

  • Customs’ 2005 Cargo Management Reengineering Project that closed the ports?
  • Queensland government’s 2011 health payroll system that went from $6.2M to $1.25B?
  • AEC’s 2016 ‘census debacle’?

Admittedly, these are all major ICT examples, but today most projects are ICT in one way or another.

The consultants bore a very heavy brunt for each of these examples – years later many of us can name them, and these examples easily came to mind.

A notable exception seems to be the Human Services’ 2020 robodebt class action … here the attention seems to be on the department, regardless of whether or not a political master or mistress insisted this was a good idea. I think a consulting firm may have dodged a bullet here.

A director recently told me that the APS manages risk by engaging the ‘Big 4’ in equal measures across its major projects, because it helps with any Senate Estimates enquiries – that’s anecdotal, but it was passed on to me as assumed knowledge.

She didn’t use the word ‘scapegoat’ but it was clear that Big 4 credibility was seen as valuable to departments when needing to shift or share the blame for initiatives that may not meet public or budget expectations, or where the answers to any stakeholder engagement might be unpopular with those on the Hill.

Is it really ok?

Whether you are asking your consultant to kick or carry your can, the real question is if it is acceptable practice for a government agency to use a consultant to manage their risk – political or otherwise – regardless of how difficult their position might be with their minister.

My sense is that if you suspect it’s a can, and if you ‘perceive negative consequences of giving honest, impartial, apolitical – but sometimes unwanted or unappreciated – advice, if you are feeling pressure to “be “pragmatic” – that is, to give advice, or to act in a way that is expedient or convenient, but does not promote the integrity, trust, service or accountability of the public sector’* – then you can either:

  • follow the very succinct advice offered by the NSW government (*quoted above), which also aligns with the “Choose C” options from above; or
  • accept that you’re not really fulfilling the role expected of you, and that being a ‘yes person’ will likely cost everyone more time, money and in recent examples, personal pain and hardship.

The NSW government advice acknowledges that “In these instances, giving frank and fearless advice requires leadership, courage and innovation”.

That’s ok, because that’s your job.

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Chris Johnson
Managing Editor

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