A declaration of interest that feels like a confession:
My name is Penny and I have provided consultancy services for the public sector through my own company. There, I’ve said it. I’ve done work for the government without being on the permanent payroll. Which puts me beyond the pale, if you’ve been following recent exposes on consultancy among the senior civil service.
When is a consultant not a consultant?
Let’s start – as any good civil servant would – by defining our terms. Interim managers are not necessarily the same as consultants who are not necessarily the same as freelancers or temps. However, all of us seem to be boiling in the same pot as far as the papers are concerned. I’m taking heart from the belief that the papers don’t have their sights on people like me (though it’s hard to be sure).
They’re concerned with people trousering six-figure pay cheques, who are effectively full-time civil servants but are paid as consultants. One case was a senior manager who’s been in post since 2007. If true, it’s hard to argue that he is anything other than a government employee who should be paid accordingly.
My case is different. In both cases where I’ve worked as a consultant in government (one 6 month stint, one about 8 months) I’ve worked on projects that didn’t exist before I was hired to set them up and where the required skills hadn’t been found in-house. I didn’t take over an existing job or manage full-time staff (consultants aren’t allowed to, I wonder how they’ve been getting round that one since 2007?) In both cases I left once the projects were completed.
I suspect that employing me that way saved taxpayers a fair bit. They didn’t contribute to my pension for example, or pay employer’s NI contributions, or holiday pay or sick pay. The day the projects ended so did the money – no redundancy package to cushion the blow and no help getting another job. My conscience is clear.
There’s a role for interims in government
The civil service employment story has moved on to bemoan the rising cost of redundancies and the corresponding number of people being taken on through agencies to fill the gaps. I now learn, thanks to a storming series of posts on this issue at Flipchart Fairytales, that the use of interim managers in government may be about to end completely.
Well. I’m all for protecting the employment rights of those in work, and questioned the wisdom of cutting the civil service when massive changes are being made to how public services are delivered. But it’s not as simple as saying permanent staff = good: interim managers/ freelance consultants = spawn of the Devil.
First, pushing permanent civil servants out of the front door while bringing freelancers in through the back is only evidence of poor planning if the jobs the two groups are doing are the same. Bringing in agency temps because staff cuts have been made over-hastily is clearly not good.
But I know from experience that there is a superfluity of general administrators in the civil service and a lack of specialist skills in some key areas. Interim managers or specialist consultants offer a flexible, highly skilled resource for government (or any other employer) to deliver specific projects, where there is an acute need for good quality, specialist management NOW.
The importance of workforce planning
Whitehall has, frankly, never been great at workforce planning. I went to a seminar last year given by the head of the team which worked in the Home Office, planning a structured approach to matching the recruitment and retention strategy to their projected future business. Until that sort of long-term strategic planning becomes the norm in government departments I suspect there will always be a need for interim managers to step into the breach. Cutting themselves adrift from potential help because the papers disapprove of interim employment arrangements doesn’t seem like good business sense to me.