Consultancy conundrum

21 Sep 12
Alan Leaman

The government's new system for buying consultancy services has been beset by delays leading to frustration and scepticism. There’s still time to rescue the initiative but ministers must demonstrate a new determination to succeed

The coalition government has rightly set great store by procurement. Ministers argue that better buying by Whitehall can deliver improved efficiency and reduce waste. Just as important, perhaps, the Cabinet Office and Vince Cable at the Business Department are focused on using the public sector’s power in the marketplace to stimulate growth and encourage job-creation amongst small and medium-sized enterprises.

So far, this is all so good. Few disagree that better buying should be a priority for any government, whatever the level of planned expenditure. And the arrival of a new government in 2010, coupled with austerity, gave Whitehall an opportunity to scrap a lot of inherited behaviours that were holding everyone back.

In consulting, this opportunity for a clean break and a fresh start was represented in the proposal to consolidate and update all existing buying frameworks into a single initiative, christened ConsultancyONE. It will replace a plethora of confusing routes to market with a fit-for-purpose and modern approach.

At first glance, this is mainly a technical improvement. But, lifting our sights, it could yet deliver a huge number of benefits – for taxpayers, good government and the consulting industry.

First, a single framework provides clarity for government buyers. They need that because efforts to transform the public sector, reduce its deficit, boost productivity and improve public services will all, at some points, require the input and support of external consulting services. And ministers are entitled to expect that buying decisions will only be taken when the business case is clear and in a way that means that the public receives the best possible return on its investment.

ConsultancyONE should also enable spending to be tracked and monitored more effectively. It should differentiate more clearly between value-adding consulting and interim management or other forms of temporary staff. And, perhaps the biggest prize, by putting the emphasis on capability and performance, it will give government users of consulting services access to a wider range of quality consulting firms, including many of the smaller specialist firms that bring so much to the table.

The net result should be a better return on investment for taxpayers and a more positive marketplace for quality management consultancies. For many years, the National Audit Office and others have been complaining that central government is unclear about how and when it uses consultancy services and, more importantly, whether it is maximising the value that it gains. Here is a chance to put that right.

So where is it? Two years after we started talking about it, and nearly a year after it was launched, ConsultancyONE has yet to be finalised. And this from a government that says that one of the problems with buying frameworks is that they can easily get out of date.

Life is too short to catalogue all the delays. The target is now that the successful companies will be announced sometime in the spring of 2013. No wonder there is a growing sense of frustration and scepticism around the consulting industry, made worse by the optimism that was there at the start.

There are always good reasons for delays. But the effect has been to damage the causes for which ConsultancyONE was invented, particularly those smaller firms that have invested greatly in the bidding process, have to re-arrange their own plans every time a deadline is missed and worry now that the prize of success will not be great enough to have made it all worthwhile.

There is still time to rescue this initiative. But it will require determination throughout government, including from ministers, to deliver a success. Otherwise, a massive opportunity will be lost.

Alan Leaman is the chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association

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