Our management consultancy columnist, Mick James, this week wanders how long will the value of consultants in the public sector be debated.
Can local government manage change alone?
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a lengthy rebuttal of a rather tiresome piece in The Observer that argued (again) that consultants were basically a waste of time and a crutch for weak management. Shortly afterwards I was surprised to be invited to take part in a debate at something called the "Battle of Ideas" to debate, well, basically the same topic. After quickly checking the calendar to make sure I hadn't slipped far enough back in time to make a killing in property, I felt a wave of almost existential tiredness sweep over me. How much longer is this scratched record going to stay on the turntable? Did people keep asking Copernicus if he was sure about the earth-orbits-the-sun thing because it looked very much the other way this morning? Did St George's well-meaning relatives keep buying him a fresh dragon every birth day and Christmas? I've suggested that someone from the IBC or the MCA might want to sacrifice a weekend for this one but frankly I suspect we'd all rather volunteer to be the Aunt Sally at our local village fete.
Why can't we have debates that are at least based on a few facts? An interesting starting point might be some research that came my way recently about how well local government is coping with the government's Transformation Agenda.
The research, by service delivery software provider Civica, found that while a third of the 102 survey responders felt that they had made "significant progress" with transformation, they were worried about a lack of change management skills. When asked whether they saw partnership with other service providers as a high priority or significant in service 94 per cent said this would come from management consultancy. That's a vote of confidence only the surliest of dictators could complain about. There are only two explanations for this: either all but a handful of our senior officials are indecisive weaklings seduced by snake oil salesmen or there's a genuine need out there.
The survey suggests that there is a genuine appetite for change out there -- one statistic readers might like to pick up on is that 70 per cent of respondents expect to have entered some sort of shared services with other bodies within the next three years. You might be cynical and wonder if some of this enthusiasm comes from the knowledge that in the near future there will be little room to manoeuvre on things like staff levels and council tax rates. But this is still a huge shift, and anyone who has worked in local government -- as I have -- will recognise the scale of the change required to make it happen.
So many things in local government conspire against change, and this is not meant as a criticism. I'd have to ask more questions about those authorities that feel confident about doing it alone. Is it reasonable for a public service organisation to have the skills and resources to make such a change happen? How many people are you going to take away from service delivery to make this happen? Are you sure that your internal change managers have the experience to implement change on this scale? Do you have a mechanism to learn from other authorities' experience, or are you going to waste even more time and money reinventing the wheel? What will you do with all this spare resource when the change is implemented?
These changes are happening very rapidly: most of those that do not claim to have already made progress with the transformation agenda expect to have done so by the end of the year. It's impossible to see how these can even begin to happen unless consultants are brought in, and impossible to see how they can stick without careful change management. When I worked in local government change management went something like this: "Here's your new computer system. Now shut up and get on with it." Is it any surprise that as a NALGO shop steward I had very little difficulty getting people out on strike?
Previously I would have questioned the sanity of anyone who volunteered to implement change in the local government sector. Now I would suggest that there is a clear opportunity for those consultants with the right skills, at what is looking to be an increasingly sticky time for the industry, to do themselves and the country at large a big favour. People will notice the results of these changes every time they phone the town hall, put out the bins or open their council tax bill. Then perhaps we can have a real debate about the value of consultancy.
All views expressed in this article are those of Mick James and do not necessarily reflect the views of Top-Consultant.com and Consultant-News.com.
Contact Mick with your views or suggestions at: email@example.com.