12 November 2020
Time to experiment.
By John Watson
Sir Keir Starmer is not a sneering man. In fact, as befits a former Director of Public Prosecutions, his statements are normally fair-minded and honest. You may disagree with him but you do not believe that he is deliberately leading you up the garden path. That is why those in the middle who are not tied to either party find him an attractive politician. On the other hand, he has enemies behind him, and those include members of his own party who see jibes as weapons. They do not care for his fair-minded attitude at all.
“Sharpen up, sharpen up, hit them when it hurts” they cry as they emerge from the cracks and crevices of old Labour, the spittle flecking their lips. “Who cares whether they are fair? Who cares whether jibes about the pandemic result in a distortion of government policies and the loss of pensioners’ lives? Criticism is just a move in the class war and we expect the Labour leader to use it savagely. À la lantern, les Aristos, the middle class and anyone else who does not spend their evenings in revolutionary pubs consuming sugared water!”
Even the doughty Sir Keir must be influenced a little by this pressure and perhaps that is why in the debate about lockdown on Manchester he mentioned rather acidly the fact that some government consultants on Test and Trace are been paid £7,000 a day. That raises two questions. The first is whether the rate is too high and the second is whether the government should be depending on consultants in the first place.
The first question is the easier to address. If you assume a seven hour day, £7000 a day works out at £1000 an hour. That sounds a lot but is rather below the international norm for a top tier lawyer or accountant dealing with an important business transaction. In a commercial context it buys two things: first, the technical ability of the individual; and second, the support they are able to draw from the organisation around them or from their contacts. Suppose then that you hire a top consultant to design your “track and trace”. It is new and innovative work, probably harder than that faced by many professionals during their careers. The consultant has the expertise of the firm at his or her back. For a top performer, £1000 per hour is hardly excessive. For an idiot of course it is very excessive indeed but so is £20 an hour for that matter. It all depends what you are getting for the money.
Value for money is also the key to the much more difficult question of whether the Government should be using consultants at all or whether projects like Track and Trace should be being managed from within the civil service or the NHS, presumably buying in technical expertise when needed. Begin with the way in which the instruction to create such a service might run down an imaginary chain of command.
Boris to Hancock: “Right then, Hancock. We’ve decided to follow “whack a mole” and that only works in the context of Track and Trace. I’ve spoken to Rishi and he will fund it. Over to you. We need it by the end of next month. England expects etc, etc…”
Hancock to top civil servant: “Right then, Sir Humphrey (or Lady Humphrey, as the case may be), the PM has told me that they need Track and Trace by the end of next month. Put your top team on it at once and don’t spare the horses.”
Top civil servant to top boffin: “Right then, my good Mr or Mrs Top Boffin, drop everything else and deliver Track and Trace in six weeks. Chop, Chop.”
Top boffin at prayers: “Oh, Lord, this is new technology and there is no time for trial and error. It is beyond my experience and, besides, I don’t have an organisation which can give me the support I would need. It’s going to go pear shaped for which I will carry the can. What should I do?”
Hire consultants? Good idea, Lord. They are much more used to unusual problems and have backup and the latest computer systems. Also, if it goes wrong they can take the blame. Perfect, Lord, and what sort of consultant should I hire? A big one in case it goes wrong? Yes, as you say, Lord, no one was ever fired for hiring IBM.”
Top boffin to head of independent consultancy: “We need someone to help us to get Track and Trace into place. It needs to be done by the end of the month so please could you put your top consultant on it. Yes, of course we will pay full rates”
Head of consultancy to top consultant: “You are the one who is going to have to do the work. What is needed is a plan.”
Top consultant to top civil servant: “Eureka, I have worked it all out. What I need is for the NHS/Public health England to take the following steps…”
The interesting thing about that sequence is that the one person doing difficult innovative work is the top consultant. The rest, apart from Boris who makes the political decision, merely provide a framework for getting that consultant into the right position. Should consultants be employees of the government or should it rely on their services being provided through outside consultancies?
At first sight the argument for bringing the consultancy services in-house is attractive. It would cut down on the layers in the chain of command and the whole expense of employing consultants could be focused on the remuneration of a few highly-trained specialists. That is presumably behind proposals, currently understood to be advocated by Dominic Cummings, for a government consultancy service which could be wheeled in to deal with difficult logistical problems. On the other hand there are difficulties too. The first is that of independence. Would an internal agency be too close to the politicians to be able to make logical decisions without being distorted by political objectives? That is a problem certainly but in reality it probably already exists. Consultancy firms hired by the government no doubt keep a keen eye on the interests of those who instruct them in much the same way as would an agency which was part of the civil service.
Another is whether such a service would attract the best brains. That isn’t so much a question of how much they should be paid, but rather whether the work they received from government would be varied enough to give them experience rivalling that of outside consultants. That is a more substantial difficulty but there are ways it might be tackled. For example the entry to such an organisation could be flexible so that consultants could leave or join it at all stages of their career. Perhaps too the consultancy could be made available to bodies outside the UK government, say to governments abroad or even in some circumstances to commercial organisations. It certainly does not seem insuperable.
I forget exactly who it was who described politicians as having a series of levers which they could pull but finding, when they did so, that nothing whatever happens. That, however you look at it, is a blemish on the national administration and we need a way of sorting it out. Continual recourse to outside consultants seems a cockeyed way of managing and one cannot help feeling that providing a route through which a minister can find an internal team to make things happen would be worth quite a lot of experimentation.