19 July 2023

Consultants aren't going away, no matter how tough the talk

| Chris Johnson
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Consultants to the APS will always be around. Photo: File.

No one should be fooled into believing the Australian Public Service will be ridding itself of external consultants almost entirely, even in light of the PwC breach of trust scandal.

It’s just a matter of degrees and how much resistance there is to letting them keep running the show.

The use of consultants large, medium and small in the public service has certainly gotten out of hand in recent years, as has the whole labour-for-hire swamp consecutive governments have wallowed in.

Labor is making a fist of addressing the problem, but the task is gargantuan.

Consultants are part of public service delivery, for better or worse, and that’s not going to change anytime soon – like, never.

One reason is that despite Labor blaming the former Coalition government for blowing the budget on external consultants and contractors, which it did, the ALP itself is wedded to the notion that the APS can’t do it all by itself.

And the ALP is just as cosy with the big four consultancies as the Coalition is (PwC and Jim Chalmers, anyone?).

The in-house consultancy push has a lot of merit and will hopefully change the landscape to some noticeable degree.

But its arrival won’t replace external consultants.

Finance and Public Service Minister Katy Gallagher has said as much.

“I definitely think there should be a role for external consultants, but it should be for a specific work, where you lack those skills within the department, where it’s technical advice,” she said on breakfast radio on Monday.

“Obviously, there’s an auditing function that some of these consultancies provide, which I think will remain needed by the APS. But in terms of the way it operates now, I think, definitely, we need to wind it back.”

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The Minister went on to talk about changes the government has made in addressing procurement rules, conflicts of interest and general advice to departments about consultancy work.

But she confessed that the embedding of external contractors was bigger than even she had imagined.

“I have certainly learned a lot in the last 12 months and I am determined, you know, more determined, perhaps, than ever to try and make sure or to make sure we rebalance the public service,” she said.

“So that where you do use these firms, you are using them for specific terms, for specific pieces of work, for specific pieces of expertise, not just as a way to do the work that the public service should do.”

Core public service work of developing policies, advising the government and filling positions, she said, should be done more by actual public servants and less by external consultants.

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“I mean, we’ve had a huge change in the way of the use of external labour to fill, you know, what would traditionally have been seen as public service roles,” Senator Gallagher said.

“Where that is in place, I want to see that change and rebalance. And look, you can’t do this overnight, because of the way it’s happened over a number of years.

“It’s not just a matter of saying we don’t use them anymore because in some areas the use of external labour… is in place, and so we have to wind it back.”

About $800 million was saved in the last federal budget by converting 3300 external labour contracts into permanent public service jobs.

That’s a start, but to quote Monty Python’s determined but hapless Black Knight – ‘tis but a scratch.

With examples such as the one discussed in the minister’s radio interview where an EL2 paid $88 an hour quit their job only to resell their skills back to the APS as a contractor for $550 an hour, it is clear that the fix won’t be easy.

There’s a strong case right there for placing greater value on the skills actual public servants have; and an even stronger case for why playing politics with the APS won’t save the taxpayer money.

If, like the Black Knight, the public service loses vital limbs while still bragging about its strength and invincibility, it will simply be left to bleed away while strangers take over.

Original Article published by Chris Johnson on Riotact.

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