As published in the Mandarin March 1, 2021 by Kiah MD John Glenn

A recent article suggested replacing consultants with a “public sector reserve”. I thought it was a nonsense, addressing a ‘symptom’ rather than the root cause.

The underlying problem seems clear – the public service doesn’t get sufficient value for money from the consultants it hires. Consultants are here to stay, so let’s address the real problem – value.

The typical tiers of consulting

Strategy consulting – These are the high-end strategy companies. Amazing diagrams, great presentations and a capability for analytics, data presentation and insight. They can do very, very good work in determining strategic choices for business. They are helpful to the public sector, when called on to solve the big picture puzzles – quickly. Taking 10% off global business costs is easy, making enduring change to take 10% out of a public sector activity, forever, is extraordinarily difficult. Their logic is indisputable, their plans often impractical and unimplementable.

‘Big Four’ – Then we have the uber consulting companies, the big four and all those who aspire to be. Their business is scale – highly leveraged, big implementations. Their model relies on process and methodology for scale and safety. A Partner to lead, less experienced to deliver against a methodology, which is actually the answer to someone else’s problem. This is OK if your problem is similar, and disastrous if methodology seeks to answer a problem with the wrong toolset. Unfortunately, this is what many do.

While often pilloried around big project failures, big projects carry big risk and risk sometimes eventuates. But sometimes the ongoing disaster and cost is a failure to adapt, relying on scale and size to drive through. You can’t ignore this group – they truly have the scale for managing implementation and large projects – but they don’t handle ambiguity and the ill-defined well. IP, scale, experience, size – nor brand and name – is no guarantee of success.

The Consulting Tundra – Typically, these are small to mid-size companies servicing the needs of an owner or two, often designed for eventual sale to one of the bigger companies. They represent the Consulting IP tundra. They might have some good branding and smart sales but rely almost solely on the experience of the individual they have hired. They provide little investment in corporate IP, or the individual. If you want a surrogate resource, these are the companies to seek out.

The new wave – There is a new wave of specialist and boutique, alongside smaller companies with focus and purpose. Interestingly we are seeing Big Four Partners leaving to start boutique advisory consulting business. According to the AFR you get better advice, cheaper. But advisory isn’t execution. No doubt in our mind that by bringing together the right specialists in advisory and execution you can get better outcomes, faster, at a better cost. But you must lead the engagement towards your strategic outcome.

Getting value?

To get value you need to ask the right question and manage the delivery. There is no value in hiring consultants and leaving them to their own devices. You may well find them defining a problem they can answer, but you don’t need answered, and using a lot of resources to do it. I am going to be so bold that this, in my experience, is the largest weakness of the public sector consultant engagement – Hands free.

Pay attention or pay lots!

Each of them do add value when procured to solve the right problem in the right way. Points to ponder:

  • If a way ahead can be solved by analysis, and not all can, then the Strategy companies are a good choice. Their methodologies are similar: understand the questions, build some hypothesis for the answer, collect loads of data and analyse it, then deliver an insightful presentation based on the chosen hypothesis. Often quick, usually expensive, and frequently impractical. But it might be what you need.
  • If you need scale, this is the Big Four. No one can turn out a team at a moment’s notice quite like the Big Four. It just might not be the team you need. Tenders are often “bait and switch” – the best team in the tender, the available team in delivery. Experience is what they sell their employees, so don’t expect tenure on project, they tend to move their staff. Be very clear on deliverables and standards. If they haven’t met expectation, don’t accept it. It is easier if you pay attention early, identify issues early and say “do-over” early.
  • If you need surrogate resources, then go to a resource business not a labour hire pseudo consulting business. Don’t be drawn in the by the use of consultant in the business name if they don’t have consulting in their DNA. Consulting means IP, know how, client engagement, experience, leadership, quality assurance and standards. If you are getting an unsupported individual, you are buying labour, pay labour hire rates.

Ultimately, if you want value you have to lead and manage. You cannot abrogate that responsibility and still expect to get value. Going to a one-stop-shop is easy, avoids work but it is inherently lazy. Pay more to do less, but you will get less. Less focus on you, less specialisation, less care, less value.

Full disclosure, I run a consulting firm.

I am in the industry, with my own business, because I couldn’t find a company for whom I wanted to work. Mostly I did not like the games being played and the value delivered, or the lack of purpose other than money.

We work where the others do not: with the ambiguous, the complex and the chaotic. The real world of public service delivery.

Our combination of “professional generalists” with “industry specialists” is powerful when combined with the know-how to apply commercial practices to the public sector.

If you want to manage a satellite program, build a fuel farm, implement an SAP program, or procure a billion dollar services contract – we know what it takes. But we can’t do it alone.

We don’t compete within our peers, we help you hire them, manage them and get best value from them. If you only have theorists, or give your entire design, management and delivery over to one company – then you are unsafe.

Our job is to keep you safe.

Are you facing a complex problem with an uncertain path? Have a problem that you can’t quite describe? If you’re not sure of your next steps – engage Kiah for a Rapid Diagnostic. 

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