Civil service minister to examine use of consultants

The new analysis of government invoices may well confirm the fears of Lord Agnew, the civil service minister who last week called for senior civil servants to stop “depriving our brightest [public servants] of opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues”.

A former businessman and Brexiter who joined the government in February, his eyes will fall on the stark figures showing that departments at the forefront of leaving the EU have become increasingly reliant on sharp-suited City specialists who can command up to £3,500 a day.

The statistics, which covered 11,000 government invoices filed until April this year, do not take into account the additional problem for Whitehall of dealing with the many complications of Covid-19.

As previously disclosed by the Guardian, government departments have spent more than £56m on consultancy firms to help deal with the pandemic, mostly without giving other companies the chance to compete for the work.

Neither Brexit nor Covid-related turmoil can be guaranteed to subside for at least six months and could continue for longer. So how might Agnew and minister for the cabinet office Michael Gove force the government machine to move away from its reliance on management consultants and instead learn to love its employees?

Given the declared mission of Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings to take on senior civil servants, this may be a harder task than first imagined.

Cummings has made no secret of his plans to shake up the structures of Whitehall or challenge what he perceives as “group think” among public servants. In January, he went as far as to plead for “misfits” with odd skills to apply for jobs.

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And in the meantime, five leading senior civil servants including the cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill and four permanent secretaries have left Whitehall this year, with colleagues claiming they were forced out.

One union representative said that there was a contradiction in the faith that Agnew has expressed in the civil service and the obvious distrust that Cummings has voiced.

“It is not surprising that the government has turned to management consultants because the civil service has been dealing with huge and complex changes because of Brexit and rapid changes in government. Back-up was needed,” said Dave Penman, the head of the FDA union which represents civil servants.

“But there does seem to be a conflict in the statements that civil servants have heard from Lord Agnew and those that have come from Cummings and his friends. Does the government trust the civil service or not?”

Some within the government believe that Lord Francis Maude, who reformed Whitehall under David Cameron, could be the person to draw up a plan to a move away from reliance on consultants.

The minister in charge of the Cabinet Office between 2010-15 has been asked to review the central department’s performance and its relationship with the rest of Whitehall following concerns that the department has failed to cope during the coronavirus crisis.

A Whitehall source said the Cabinet Office would address issues around the use of outside consultants but challenged claims that Cummings had expressed hostility towards the civil service. “Dom regularly recognises and champions brilliance in the civil service,” the source said.

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