The National Audit Office yesterday published a fascinating paper  examining the role that contract and consulting staff play within central government and the broader civil service. I found it a somewhat depressing read.

The short version: contractors and consultants can be used to help bring in resource on a short-term basis to add skills or capacity when and where it is needed. It’s also being used to bring in resource that couldn’t otherwise be afforded (contractor rates seem to be slightly less strictly controlled than full-time staff rates), or to bring in impartial expertise when and where it is required. There was a massive drop in costs associated with consultancy and contingent staff at the beginning of the last parliament, but in the last few years spending has been on an upward trend.

The paper argues that temporary and consulting resource doesn’t always offer good value for money, and that there should be better utilisation of existing civil servants, skills building and, it seems, tighter controls put on departments and arm’s-length bodies spending on temporary and consulting staff.

I did a word search. The word “career” came up precisely once in the entire 53 page document. That’s the bit I find remarkably depressing.

From my experience in central government in recent years I found myself wondering why on earth anyone would want to become a Civil Servant? They are regularly seen as a set of interchangeable units of human resource to be managed usually in the context of cost reduction. They are scapegoated as a feckless waste of public resource by politicians who essentially believe that they shouldn’t exist. And they have to take on remarkable personal career risk (particularly at senior levels), scrutinized in minute detail by both press and politicians, whilst working under wage caps and conditions changes. Not everything in the Civil Service is perfect, but I’ve seen as much, if not more, waste and inefficiency in private sector organizations over the years. Civil Servants even have to buy their own teabags.

In that context, there are a number of initiatives that are claiming to expect to use digital technology to dramatically reduce operating cost (read: headcount) whilst dramatically improving user experience. Now grandiose claims for the future benefits of big technology investments are nothing new – but where exactly are the skills to do all of this digital transformation going to come from? Initiatives in Government are looking to do world-beating, pioneering things with technology so will need world-beating, pioneering people to do it. How are these people going to be attracted to work in an organization that seems to be geared to make the employee experience as miserable as certain politicians can possibly make it?

Ultimately the answer to profligate and unnecessary spend on contracted people resource in any organization is surely to create meaningful and fulfilling roles that attract people on the basis of what the role is, how it is rewarded, and to what opportunities it might lead. You then have an engaged workforce that is productive. The paper argues that the cost of employing someone with specialist skills on a contract basis is double what it would be to bring them in on an equivalent Civil Service grade. But that makes the big assumption that those full time roles would be equally attractive to those people.

As it is, it looks like there is a very real risk that reducing contractor and consulting spend will become another burden placed upon an already significantly diminished permanent civil service workforce over the next few years of budget cuts in government.

One thought on “Interchangeable units of resource

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