what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Good advice

"I always pass on good advice", Oscar Wilde has a character say - Ït's the only thing to do with it".
The use of consultants by British Governments over the past 15 or so years had become an increasing scandal – with annual spending running at well over a billion pounds. One positive result of the austerity measures, however, is a significant scaling back. But the big consultancies have become hooked on the connection and the money – and can’t kick the habit. So now they are offering to do the work for free! At least one of them - KPMG - has offered to work for a year on what it calls a charitable basis!
Three factors contributed to New Labour fascination with such external “advice”. First the employment of quite a few leading Labour MPs by the Big Consultancies in the 1990s when Labour was in opposition; then the natural suspicion a new Government has of the civil servants who had (by 1997) faithfully served another party for 13 years. And, finally, the social engineering tendencies of even New Labourites and the 1999 modernisation programme they pursued. For some reason The National Audit Office (NAO) – which is supposed to be the nation’s financial watchdog – started to look at the issue of consultant use only in 2005 – but has, since then, issued various reports exposing the bad practice and issuing both recommendations, guidelines and the inevitable “toolkits”.
Their most recent report( issued in October for the new government) gives a useful overview of issues - and one of the annexes to the significant 2007 report is a helpful set of guidelines on increasing the commitment of clients and consultants during the projects.

Technically I have been a consultant for the past 20 years – but hate the term. I was about to say they are parasites (they are) but have just thought of an even better definition which I’ve now placed in my glossary – “a con-man who operates like a sultan”. Not only are the two separate words retained in the definition – but the Sultanic parallel covers both the rewards and airs of consultants and the way they expect the client to jump to their orders in data-collection etc.
Of course, the consultancy work I do in programmes of “Technical Assistance” in transition countries is of a different nature than that in Western Europe. And the giveaway is the use of terms – “beneficiary” rather than “client”. A client is assumed to be in control (although the NAO reports show how little British Ministries actually are in control!) – whereas a beneficiary is a passive recipient of a project he may neither want nor need! After all, he doesn’t pay for it (it’s a freebie) – and has played little part in drafting its specifications! Here is another example of a system needing a proper balance between its demand and supply sides - an issue which "donors" have recognised in recent years with their talk of demand-driven strategies (The OECD Development Assistance centre issues interesting papers from the donor network it supports - see, for example,a recent paper which summarises some approaches and draws out some lessons). For some people (not only William Easterley), however, the only way out of these dilemmas is to remove the donors and donations.
The amount of money spent on consultancy (by Governments on their own structures and by international bodies on Technical Assistance) surpasses 100 billion euros (accroding to a 2006 OECD report) and yet how little has been written about the whole industry - let alone by anyone in it! I'll try to track down some references for a future post. And given the number of consultants in the world, isn't it about time that novels and satires were written about this??

I woke up this morning in the middle of a dream about the process of deliberation (I kid you not) which set me thinking about the lack of systemic perspective in so much of the work we are asked to do to improve the deliberative capacity of governments in transition countries. I will develop this tomorrow.......

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