Should you call in the consultants?

By Victoria Draudins

October 8, 2018

Being clear on the particular value a consultant can bring and whether the project requires these skills is essential to preserving value in the public service.

The sound of ministers quickly dropping one portfolio and picking up another has been thick in the air. Yes, yet another Canberra cabinet reshuffle has taken place.

Under Morrison’s (almost) spring cleaning, ministers are governing weighty new portfolios including defence, the environment and immigration. The decisions involved in these portfolios will impact us for many years to come. This then begs the question – how adept are ministers at handling new portfolios, given the depth and breadth of complex information required?

The answer, in large part, relies on the quality of advice they are receiving. This advice has expanded over the years and now comes from a variety of places – the public service, ministers’ own advisers, think tanks, academics and of course consultants.

A lot has been made about contracting to consultants and the accordant de-skilling of the public service in recent years. So much so that it has formed a recurring theme in recent speeches of key secretaries including Ken Henry, Martin Parkinson, Peter Varghese and Peter Shergold. It has also catalysed a parliamentary inquiry into contracting and consultants in the APS and an independent review into the capability, culture and operating model of the APS.

Good advice is made up of many voices

As Martin Bortz, who is completing a PhD on public sector consulting engagements and running a course on this very topic, tells The Mandarin: “Policy development happens as a collective activity. Each node in the network has a different role to play. A central function is needed to coordinate this and provide a critical lens. This role can be played by a department … So the relevant question for the APS is over how their relationship with consultants is managed.”

Of course, there are many examples of how consultants can be used improperly, engaged to work essentially like fulltime employees to get around slashed FTEs or managers effectively becoming fulltime project coordinators. But accepting the value of consultants and that engaging them is not bad for society per se, more focus should be on how best to engage consultants to complement the public service.

After all, the public service has a great deal of power determining this relationship because, as Bortz points out, “consultants only go where they’re told to go.”

Be clear on where consultants add value

One way for a unit to make this decision is by determining whether the capabilities required by a project should be developed or should already exist in-house. If no, then this project is a good candidate for external help. Being clear on the particular value a particular consultant can bring and whether the project requires these skills is therefore essential to preserving value in the public service.

Speaking to leaders in this space, including McKinsey senior partner Charlie Taylor about his company’s work with government transformations, there are many varied examples of where consultants best add value.

1. Leverage international experience

As Taylor tells The Mandarin, consultancies have been set up to leverage international networks. Clients will often see a firm’s research in one part of the world and want to know how findings can apply to their own contexts, such as McKinsey’s new transformation report Delivering for citizens: How to triple the success rate of government transformations. After finding that only ~20% of transformations reach their goals, this report identifies how implementing five disciplines or ‘the five Cs’ can increase these odds to ~60%.

2. Develop in-demand skills

According to Taylor, clients request an enablement component in the majority of McKinsey’s Public Sector Delivery Hub engagements. This can be done in a number of ways, such as by having consultants work side by side with staff, opening up training sessions to clients as well as consultants, and providing access to expert calls.

Others include building specific programs around particular topics ranging from hard skills (e.g. building functional and industry expertise) to soft skills (such as providing staff with interactive coaching where they practise learnings in the field before coming back for further feedback).

The most in-demand skills and expertise currently being requested are about digital, how to draw insights through an analytics lens, and how automation and the future of work will impact the public sector.

Making sure you incorporate enablement into the project can therefore help ensure the continued upskilling of the public service. Bortz noted that one mechanism that may ensure the capabilities of the public service is to require, within the consulting contract, that the consultants build the skills of public servants.

3. Break through road blockers

Consultancies with established public sector practices can also add value through identifying and breaking through the unique road blockers present in government.

As Taylor observes, many public sector challenges are similar to the private sector. But while a private organisation’s blockers centre on company-board agreement, the public sector has added political and bureaucratic complexity. So engaging consultants with prior experience implementing new reforms or getting a problematic aspect back on track can be invaluable. After all, these should happen very infrequently within a department’s collective memory if done right.

In addition, rightly or wrongly, potentially controversial or risky projects may also benefit from a smoother path provided by the external validation of a consultancy.

4. Solve complex problems quickly

Taylor also notes that consultants can also add value if a client is genuinely struggling with a complex problem and wants to make sure they’re making the right choice or exhaustively exploring creative solutions. The solutions can certainly come from within the organisation, but part of the consultants’ value can be coming up with a framework for evaluating them.

5. Develop a narrative

A former colleague of mine with a background in government and at The Boston Consulting Group also thought that another advantage of consultants comes from the narrative they can put behind a question. This type of overarching strategic viewpoint can be harder to develop within an organisation, but is something senior leaders greatly value.

Bortz agrees, noting this is a key finding from his PhD research. Such narrative links problems to solutions in discrete, realistic steps and provides a process through which ideas can be implemented.

What else to consider – organisation and ownership

“Data is the lifeblood of consultants, but often a lot of a consultant’s effort goes into trying to get it – sometimes right up until the end of the project.”

Once you’re clear on the unique value the consultancy can bring, be realistic about the task.

According to Bortz, people can engage a consultant with a laundry list of questions and expect them to ‘spin straw into gold’. However, it’s necessary to be actively involved in the project – questioning what a consultant can and can’t solve within the time and budget, and critically analysing work through the engagement. After all, rarely is a project set and forget. Clients should be an active part of the solution, especially when the matter is complex.

Relatedly, being organised before a project starts is something I think is extremely undervalued. For example, data is the lifeblood of consultants, but often a lot of a consultant’s effort goes into trying to get it – sometimes right up until the end of the project! But thinking about whether the types of data required are available and/or organising the people who’ll have to juggle these data requests with their day-to-day work in advance can help save time and possibly money, and allow the a team to get a better answer more quickly.

It’s also incumbent on staff to know whether they need help defining the question they’re trying to solve and why this is important or executing part of the answer. Taylor notes how important it is for him to discuss and align on clear priorities and purpose with clients before an engagement starts (one of the five Cs mentioned in McKinsey’s new transformation report).

Lastly, committed leadership is another of the essential McKinsey ‘Cs’. As Taylor states, “If you don’t have the commitment, but go ahead with a project, you won’t get a result”.

Following these tips should help ensure a smoother engagement and allow the public sector to work in complement with consultants, rather than as competitors.

If you have other tips, please let us know in the comments section below.

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