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  Implementing the government's change agenda has created enormous amounts of work for the consultancy industry, which has been called upon to implement change projects on an unprecedented scale.
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With so many projects underway, it's inevitable that some will run into trouble. Unfortunately press coverage has tended to focus on high profile failures, without any counter balancing reports of success. Worse, politicians and the media have tended to focus on totting up every penny spent on consultants without considering either the sheer variety of projects or the benefits achieved. As the recent public spat between Shadow Home Secretary David Davis and hi-tech trade body Intellect over ID Cards shows, it's all too easy for this issue to become a political football and for the real issues to get overlooked.

The following article appeared in the February 27th new quarterly “Consulting Special” section in the Evening Standard.

Consultants driving change in the public sector

By Mick James

As Accenture's UK MD David Thomlinson says: “There's too much focus on government IT projects that aren't delivering. What I would like to see is some coverage of the great results that we-and our competitors-are delivering on a day by day basis.”

Fortunately, a recent report from the National Audit Office (Central Government's use of Consultants) has put the issue in perspective, and also set out a path for even more effective partnership between the public sector and the consultancy industry.

Noting that “the sheer range of work that consultants do” coupled with a widespread failure by government bodies to assess projects, makes it hard to obtain an accurate assessment of the benefits government has so far achieved in using consultants, the report nonetheless noted that best practice in the purchase of consultancy was gradually, if slowly spreading through departments. “While there have been some important improvements in using consultants…there is still some way to go before central government overall is achieving good value for money from its use of consultants.”

The NAO estimates that by continuing to adopt best practices, government could achieve savings and benefits equaling 15% of the consultancy spend in the first year, rising to 30% over a three-year period-a benefit of over £1bn to the taxpayer.

It's an approach that has been welcomed by trade bodies such as the Management Consultancies Association and Intellect, which have been working behind the scenes for years to promote best practice in the procurement of major IT projects.

“The challenge now is to take the lessons that have been learned and drive them forward,” says Intellect director Nick Kalisperas. “As a trade association we've made considerable progress to promote best practice, and the government on the other hand has a wide range of initiatives in the public sector-put them together and the nature of the beast changes.”

Intellect aims to bring together customers, suppliers and other stakeholders such as civil service unions to understand both the possibilities of technology and the procurement environment. Taking a “technology neutral” position, it has hosted over 35 concept viability workshops, helping to educate suppliers on what public sector customers want – and customers on what is technologically possible.

“I think we must encourage dialogue between customers and suppliers at a much earlier stage,” says Kalisperas. “If you don't have these discussions at the procurement stage then it prevents a smooth implementation.”

Many suppliers believe we are now entering a new era in public sector projects.

“I'm very upbeat about what's been happening over the last couple of years, there's been a radical change in government,” says Gareth Bunn, head of Public Sector Consulting services at Capgemini. “We're seeing increasing professionalism within the public sector and central government-with initiatives like the creation of the Government CIO role, and the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit. The government is really jumping up and trying to do things better.”

One of the results of this increasing focus on professionalism has been to get more senior officials to take charge of projects.

“You now have the role of the 'senior responsible owner' for major projects, an executive level person who's not steeped in IT at all but focused on policy and business change,” says Bunn. “They are twinned with a 'senior responsible executive' on the supplier side, and what that does is create a trusting relationship which is far more focused on outcomes and where real issues of concern can be discussed and shared.”

One of the recommendations from the NAO report was for a greater understanding of the consultancy industry – and particularly the variety of consultancy approaches and business models that are out there.

“We're seeing more and more delivery projects made of mixed teams, where public sector officials work very closely with consultants and deliver projects which use the best that both sides can offer,” says Mark Thompson, Director of Methods Consulting. “While it takes an undeniable skill to work in mixed teams, clients are increasingly vocal about coming out and asking for this in their requirements.”

Public sector insight into consulting has been greatly increased by the move of a number of high-profile consultancy figures into government roles. Thompson believes that the move towards best practice, and the adoption of standard, open methodologies for running projects will facilitate a move in the opposite direction and encourage civil servants to move into consultancy:

“People who are versed in common methodology and standards are extremely well-placed to come over into consulting,” he says. “Civil servants who understand procurement are even better placed to make that move.”

All views expressed in this article are those of Mick James and do not necessarily reflect the views of and

Contact Mick with your views or suggestions at: [email protected]
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