15 February 2007 | Antony Barton
The head of the OGC has admitted that nobody can assess with accuracy the value of consultants used by the public sector, even though it spent £2.8 billion on them in 2005-06 (News, 4 January).
John Oughton, the outgoing OGC chief executive, recognised that more post-project evaluations were necessary to determine value for money. He also said more should be done to prevent departments using consultants when core staff would suffice.
Last week members of the parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts asked Oughton why government held insufficient information on the use of consultants. Referring to the National Audit Office report, Central government's use of consultants, Iain Wright MP said it was "a disgrace" that most departments did not undertake and share post-project performance reviews. He said the findings were a "damning indictment of civil service management of consultants and their contracts".
Oughton said it was sometimes hard to assess the contribution of consultants but conceded the OGC had "not been systematic and comprehensive enough" in its post-project Gateway reviews. He said it was increasing pressure on departments to ensure they were carried out.
When Edward Leigh MP challenged Oughton about the £7.2 billion spent by the taxpayers on consultancy in the past three years, Oughton said he was happy with such spend provided "the business is being placed on a sound value-for-money basis". He added that consultants were necessary when specialist skills did not exist or when there was a rapid implementation of new policies. He referred to the Pension Credit programme and the Transport for London congestion charge scheme as successful projects requiring consultants. Yet he accepted that departments should make more use of core staff - the report found that about 40 per cent of clients said they had used consultants unnecessarily.
He told the committee that, since the report, he had asked his officials to explore the possibility of establishing a checklist that departments could use when making cases to ministers and permanent secretaries for consultancy spend.
This would cover the use of internal staff rather than consultants, less costly use of specialist contractors, alternative payment mechanisms to "time and materials" and the potential for cross-departmental collaboration.
Oughton added that the new OGC powers described in the recent Treasury report could help speed up the adoption of best practice. They would allow it to move from "soft-edged encouragement" to a "demanding" approach.ee news focus