9 August 2023

It's official, the reliance on external consultants has gone troppo

| Chris Johnson
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The Department of Finance has engaged a consultant to tell it how to deal with consultants. Photo: David Murtagh.

Calling in an external consultant to advise the Federal Government on how it should deal with consultants probably looked like a good idea on paper – but no, not really.

Sure, there are brainstorming sessions held in offices everywhere in which everything is put up on a whiteboard and there are ‘no bad ideas’.

Or maybe it was butcher paper pinned to an easel.

But this shouldn’t have been one of those sessions. This is a bad idea.

It should have been wiped off the board immediately. It should have never been converted into ink in the first place.

Or was it a case of it being the only idea to have been put up in permanent marker, leaving it unable to be erased and allowing some boffin to think it was selected for implementation?

That’s being kind.

Because there doesn’t seem to be any scenario at all where the suggestion of paying a consultant to tell you about consultants was ever going to fly as a grand plan in this current political climate.

Yet it did.

It was the chosen path.

READ ALSO Government outlines moves to crack down on dodgy consultants

Despite all the talk about using external consultants far less, and about the Australian Public Service needing to call on its own expertise instead – and amid all the ongoing revelations of the big four consultancy firms ripping off Australian taxpayers – someone thought of (and someone else approved) the idea of engaging another consultant.

The Ethics Centre’s executive director Simon Longstaff is being paid $32,000 to advise the Department of Finance on how it should engage with disgraced accounting firm PwC and its spinoff Scyne Advisory, which took over PwC Australia’s government business (bought for $1).

Nothing against Longstaff – he has a formidable reputation and will do a professional job. And $32,000 is a pittance in the grand scheme of things.

But a consultant to advise on consultants?

When consultants are the problem, let’s pay one to tell us how to cope with the problem?

Greens senator Barbara Pocock has already suggested it could have been a scene from political satire comedy Utopia.

“Just imagine a bureaucrat in the finance department saying ‘We need to hire a consultant to advise us on how to hire consultants’,” Senator Pocock said.

“The scriptwriters from the ABC’s Utopia series couldn’t have come up with a more laughable scenario.”

And she’s right.

Except this isn’t a joking matter – something Senator Pocock knows only too well with her integrity campaign and dogged Senate scrutiny of consultants to the government.

Is there no one already employed by the Federal Government, the APS, no group of highly intelligent public servants who could be charged with forming a committee to advise on PwC and Scyne?

It doesn’t seem like rocket science.

The pitfalls to avoid have already been spelled out in what has been recently learned about how big consultancy firms operate.

READ ALSO No PwC conflict of interest, insists AFP boss

It really flies in the face of what are seeming more and more like weasel words from federal ministers about capitalising on the expertise that already exists within the government’s own workforce.

Surely there are some very clever senior public servants covering their faces in embarrassment over this move, and hanging their heads in despair over once again being overlooked for a task they are perfectly equipped to perform.

Calling in a former commissioner or retired departmental secretary is a better look than engaging another external consultant.

But even over-relying on such past experience wears a little thin where there is already a mountain of knowledge and skill inside the current APS.

Governments have for far too long believed that external expertise is preferable to that which already exists inside the tent.

This current government has tried to convince us it is taking a different approach.

But the absurd move of paying a consultant to tell it how to deal with consultants reveals that Labor’s mindset is not that far removed from the Coalition’s on how it should be advised.

It’s a bureaucratic farce … but it’s not funny.

Original Article published by Chris Johnson on Riotact.

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