At the height of the London lockdown last year, when the streets were empty and restaurants and shops deserted, the offices near Parliament in Westminster were full of socially aloof advisory teams trying to figure out how the UK was responding to the Covid-19 Pandemic should respond.
Consultants employed on other government projects were switched to the Coronavirus Emergency Response, as were many who had worked for retailers, consumer brands, and financial services that were no longer looking for strategy revisions or new product launches.
After years of civil service cuts, the government needed staff quickly. From trade deals with leisure centers to decisions to continue construction, work and consultants have been the only available manpower in any political decision.
Sometimes officials rang the doorbell and said, “Give me your best price for 100 people,” says an advisor called in to help out with the pandemic. “There was a lot of ‘call your friends and bring them in’.”
In early March, the government suspended the tender so that contracts could be placed quickly – either with work that was simply handed over to consultants or added to existing framework agreements. “Officials were very quick to run contests or give out direct awards, or at times it was assumed that the price would be calculated in the future,” added the advisor, who asked to remain anonymous.
According to Tussell, a research firm that oversees government contracts, at least 152 contracts worth £ 330 million were awarded to the eight largest consultancies between April and February 1 of this year.
Deloitte won the largest share with £ 195m worth of work including contracts to source personal protective equipment for hospitals and support Covid-19 test sites. At one point, more than 1,000 consultants were working on developing and setting up the appointment booking and test kit registration platform for the UK test and trace program.
Consultants were used for urgent work such as purchasing PPE. © Finnbarr Webster / Getty Images
PwC, the UK’s largest accounting and advisory firm, has won £ 31 million work including advising on the coronavirus business interruption loan for the state-run British Business Bank.
The decision to hire consultants without tendering has revived longstanding questions about value for money, transparency, and potential conflicts of interest when the government uses external consultants.
High fees and poor performance were often criticized. The National Audit Office has raised concerns and there are a number of legal challenges.
Late last year Lord Agnew, the cabinet minister, criticized the overuse of advisers who he believes are wasting money and “infantilizing officials”. He has plans for a team of in-house consultants in the cabinet office known as the Crown Consultancy.
Alex Thomas, program director at the Institute for Government, a think tank, says the goal of the proposal is to create pools of people who can be quickly deployed to fulfill ministerial programs or help specific departments.
However, he added that this would only work if it was large enough to provide real support and was unlikely to “solve public service capacity issues, skills gaps or save a lot of money”.
Although there are some cases where it makes sense for the government to use consultants, says Thomas, “it tends to do when things go wrong [it] relies on generalist advisers to do tasks officials can do cheaper and more effectively. “
KPMG argues that using advisors helps the government respond quickly to emergencies. “Globally, governments are calling on experts to help them address the pressing challenges facing society like Covid-19,” KPMG said.
“The use of external specialists enables the public sector to carry out critical projects, especially when capacities, skills and expertise are needed on a large scale and under severe time pressure. As countries seek to return to sustainable growth, these projects are investments in support of long-term economic recovery. “
The use of external specialists enables the public sector to carry out critical projects under severe time pressure
Peter Smith, author of Bad Buying: How Corporations Waste Billions on Failures, Fraud, and F * ck-ups, says the greater number of consultants employed during the pandemic suggests they are “less cerebral thinking about blue Heaven or specific intellectual property “provided but more industrious, hard-working people who are supplied in bulk”.
“It was probably quite difficult to combine the normal metrics and smart contracting methods like fixed price agreements during the pandemic, but the concern is that what is considered bad practice in normal times will become the norm,” he says.
Liz David-Barrett, professor of governance and integrity at the University of Sussex, says that by awarding some business consultancies, the government “appears to have created a parallel state” for much of the work.
The government should have been better prepared for a possible pandemic earlier, and a lack of planning would have forced them into emergency contracts if they weren’t necessary, the professor says. Lack of planning and capacity creates a situation where the risk of corruption, lack of accountability and poor governance increases, she argues.
However, when spending seems high, Edward Haigh, joint managing director of Source Global Research, a data consultancy provider, warns that many of the larger consulting firms have also announced job losses and wage cuts as gain for work related to Covid-19 during the pandemic were offset by the loss of projects elsewhere. It found that the state sector’s work for consultants overall shrank by 7.9 percent in 2020 and that fee rates were under pressure as many companies offered to work for free.
In light of criticism of reports that some BCG consultants who won £ 30 million worth of coronavirus-related work were charging fees of £ 7,000 per day, Haigh admits that it can be difficult for officials to charge consultancy fees to swallow. “The nature of most consultancy work makes it very difficult to find accurate and reliable ways to measure the value that is being delivered,” he says.