In defence of management consultants

I was out with my dog a little while ago and fell into conversation with a lady walking her Doberman. She asked me what I did for a living. “I’m a management consultant,” I said. “Ah,” she replied, her eyes narrowing accusingly. “But what do you actually do.”

It is fair to say that management consultants do not have the best of reputations. And not just in dog walking circles. We are the overpaid purveyors of smoke and mirrors. We are the vultures of the economy, hovering over organisations in trouble, looking for easy pickings. And we siphon scarce resources from the public sector to line our own silken pockets.

That, at least, is how the story goes. And Jacques Peretti’s BBC documentary ‘Who’s spending Britain’s billions?’, broadcast recently on BBC 2, is but its latest chapter.

Peretti announced that the use of management consultants across government has doubled in the last five years. He revealed how, once in the door, consultants have become skilled at expanding their remit until they become an integral – and expensive – part of the organisation. And he exposed the way in which so many ‘transformation’ projects make consultants rich but create nothing but disruption for their clients.

The implicit accusation, of course, is that we are only in it for the money. That we do not care about our clients, the people they serve, the challenges they face or the vital changes they are trying to make.

Well, I am afraid I cannot just take that lying down.

I am not saying, of course, that all management consultants are a paragon of virtue. I have met my fair share of clowns, as I suspect have most readers of this article. But in ten years at a ‘big four’ consultancy and five years running my own practice, the vast majority of consultants I have known are hard-working, conscientious individuals who do what they do because they care.

And management consultants can provide valuable support to their clients. We can, for example, bring specialist expertise that the organisation may not have in-house. We can supply additional capacity, especially for projects that fall outside the client’s day-to-day operations. We can bring experience of how other organisations have responded to similar issues. And we can provide an objective point of view that cuts through internal politics and dubious assumptions.

But if organisations across the public sector want to get the most from consultants and avoid wasting money on projects that end up going nowhere, they need to raise their own game, too.

The first step, in my view, is to question whether you really need a consultant at all. It is quite common to find that the answer to a client’s problem already exists somewhere within the organisation. Or that people on the ground know what needs to be done but do not have sufficient clout with management to put their ideas into practice. If you are looking for an expert on what you do, look first to the people you employ who actually do it.

If you decide that you do need consultancy support, though, it is important to be clear about what you want to achieve. Poorly defined problems invite poorly defined solutions. ‘We want to be more efficient’ is just inviting trouble. ‘We want to improve processing times by 25%’ is something I can work with. A good consultant will help you to define the problem and identify suitable ways of addressing it. A less scrupulous one will see a blank cheque.

When it comes to consultancy projects themselves, the biggest reason for the escalating costs highlighted by Peretti is changes to the scope of the project. This is sometimes unavoidable, of course, if circumstances have changed or new information has come to light. But quite frequently it is because someone somewhere has changed their mind about what they want. That is fine, but it will probably cost you.

Arguing that public sector organisations need to be more savvy when using consultants is, however, to focus on just one part of the problem. There is, of course, an elephant in the room. An elephant that simultaneously forces public sector organisations to use consultants and berates them for doing so.

That elephant is called austerity. Across government, people have been laid off and recruitment budgets have been frozen. So if you want to get anything done, you have practically no choice but to hire a consultant. As Peretti identifies, we have created a situation where the reliance on outside experts has undermined how organisations should work. And that is sad.

Because while I might not always be able to explain exactly what I do as a management consultant, I know for certain that I should not be a substitute for having the right people working in an organisation, doing the right jobs to help the communities we serve.

Drawing on the services of a consultant can make a genuine and substantial contribution to the success of an organisation. It can be a catalyst to achieving great things. But if you find that you cannot live without us, something has gone very wrong. On this, I suspect that both Jacques Peretti and I would agree.

 

Simon Perks is the founder and director of Sockmonkey Consulting and a trusted advisor to organisations across the public sector.

‘Who’s spending Britain’s billions?’ is available on BBC iPlayer until 22nd November 2016.

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