Cal Bricker, PhD, has worked in senior positions in the Ontario public sector as well as with private-sector companies in the waste and alcoholic beverage industries.
Thanks to recent investigative reporting by The Globe and Mail and others, Canadians have been alerted to Ottawa’s growing dependence on business consultants. Though the McKinsey and ArriveCan stories have drawn focus, the issue is a far larger one.
It’s an international issue, with scandals involving McKinsey stirring as far as France. Scratch the surface of just about any department, ministry or agency at the federal, provincial and municipal level, and you will find a “business” consultant burrowed into the fabric of the organization.
In Canada, I expect that what puzzles taxpayers most is that at the same time as business consultants consolidate their beachhead, the size of the public service continues to grow in lockstep.
Let’s take Canada’s federal public service as an example. In the latest figures publicly available from Statscan, it has grown roughly 20 per cent in the past decade. Ironically, according to The Globe, the use of consultants by the federal government ramped up at an even greater pace. In 2015-16, Ottawa spent $8.4-billion. In 2021-22, it was $11.8-billion, or an increase of 40 per cent. Why? Shouldn’t more public servants mean fewer consultants?
No. And the problem is with the current culture of growing governments. They have become incapable of delivering the little things, let alone the big ones, and are kept operational largely by the spiralling use of the “best and brightest” business consultants that taxpayer money can rent.
There are three components of the contemporary political/public service mindset that drive the use of business consultants.
First, senior public servants no longer do the work. Their job is to manage consultants. The rationale is that you can flex costs based on demand. Don’t need the consultants any more? Send them on their way without severance, pensions and the like. Don’t worry about training, as the consultants are pitched as fully proficient. While this can sound attractive in terms of cost, the unintended consequence is that it can result in skill fade to the extent that the department or agency can no longer function operationally and must rely on consultants to perform core tasks. No need to check too far beyond the use of business consultants in government IT services to see evidence for this proposition. Absurdly enough, it is not uncommon in that space to see former department employees hired back as consultants to do their previous work at greater cost.
Second, familiarity breeds contempt. Politicians and senior public servants can be dazzled by the credentials and aptitude of business consultants who specialize in making presentations, planning, benchmarking, project management and so on. (Notice I didn’t say delivering.) The result is that a public servant on their own can’t get traction on anything big in government any more unless they have a consultant alongside.
Third, this is where Zeno’s paradox comes in. Zeno was the pre-Socratic philosopher thought to be behind a series of paradoxes that show that some goals can never be achieved, often because the required steps are endless. In Zeno’s world, the hare never catches the tortoise. This is the murky territory where the “strategic’ business consultant thrives.
While we’re told the math works, anyone with common sense can see that it can’t work and never will. Government wades in anyway because their “third-party experts” say it can be done, but the window of opportunity is closing so you have to move quickly or the consequences (electoral, investment, productivity, competitiveness, environmental – the list is endless) will be catastrophic. And just look at all these tasks that we can tick off that create the illusion of momentum!
Sound familiar? Whenever you hear a pitch like that, you don’t have to dig too deep to unearth a business consultant’s invoice.
So, how does one go about fixing the problem? It is complex and will take time. But, it starts with beginning to rely again on the professional public service to do the job we’ve hired them to do. The first impulse needs to be to look inside rather than outside. Governments across this country long ago strayed from that course. It’s time to consult the compass and head in another direction.