City spivs raid the public purse

The revolving door between private sector consultancies and the civil service continues to spin.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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Stung by criticism of its over-reliance upon expensive consultancy giants, the government is proposing to set up a so-called ‘Crown Consultancy’ operation tasked with getting civil servants back into the habit of managing their own projects in-house for half the cost.

Lord Agnew, himself from a corporate background and currently sitting in the Cabinet Office, is fretting that the civil service is “infantilised” by “an unacceptable” reliance on private consultants.

Indeed, government has showered the likes of EY, Deloitte, KPMG and PwC with juicy contracts from the public purse, impervious to the appalling trail of business collapses and dodgy accounting scandals that they leave in their wake.

The Financial Times recently reported that the UK dished out £26bn on just eight consultancies in the last four years, noting: “This year alone, PwC has been paid £180m for its public sector consultancy work, making it the largest single beneficiary of UK state consulting contracts in 2020,” including fat fees from the cash-strapped NHS.

Not to be left out, Deloitte, EY and KPMG have raked in a total of £361m between them from the public sector this year. The pandemic has offered a particularly rich seam for these parasites to mine, with Deloitte project-managing PPE procurement for hospitals (just ask the nurses how that one went) and McKinsey put in charge of selling the “vision, purpose and narrative” of the test-and-trace programme (a signal failure). (No 10 explores ‘Crown Consultancy’ to stem billions going to private firms by George Parker and Tabby Kinder, Financial Times, 6 November 2020)

What keeps the wheels greased in the cosy relationship between Whitehall and the consultancy rackets is a constant migration back and forth between the two worlds.

The Financial Times article cited above noted: “Many government officials go on to work for consulting firms during their careers, resulting in close relationships between the City and Westminster. In the last year, PwC hired Gavin Barwell, former chief of staff to Theresa May, and Philip Rycroft, who ran the UK’s Brexit department. Large consultancies also regularly loan staff to government agencies as secondments.”

It is common for aspiring graduates to use the civil service as a launchpad for their later careers in the consultancy sector, where their knowledge of how project decisions really get made in government doubtless serves their new masters well.

The corrupt relationship between the City and Whitehall is deep-rooted, and did not begin with the current administration. But the cumulative effect of all the scandals besetting the consultancy world is a worry for the exploiting class, which needs a basic level of public trust in government to enable it to continue to pick taxpayers’ pockets unimpeded.

That is why Lord Agnew, the “efficiency and transformation” minister, has been tasked with bringing more project management back in-house and saving the exchequer money.

But what is proposed as a remedy sounds very much like just another twist in the incestuous relationship between Whitehall and the City. The Crown Consultancy plans to “recruit young graduates to work alongside talented civil servants and some recruits from the private sector to help manage government projects” – and so the revolving door will continue to spin.

And should anyone doubt that the new venture will restore the faith of the public in the probity of government, he will be reassured by hearing that the new wheeze has the blessing of that paragon of honesty in public life, Dominic Cummings.