In-house civil servants and external consultants: finding a balance

It would be unrealistic to expect any large organisation – including government – to rely solely on in-house staff. Part time, short notice and consultancy staff, drawn from outside, have much to offer, bringing expertise and giving the organisation the flexibility it needs to increase or wind-down its headcount as conditions dictate. 

The key is to do so within a structure that delivers value for money – particularly when that money comes from the taxpayer. Moreover, that structure should bake-in residual value, so that when a contractor’s term expires, the department continues to benefit from an expanded skillset from which future projects will benefit. 

The shrinking Civil Service 

Many of the best-qualified ‘external’ staff previously worked in government themselves, perhaps having taken voluntary early severance and setting up on their own. With a natural understanding of how government ‘works’, they are perfectly qualified to take on roles not greatly different from those which they performed in-house, only now billing two or three times their former salary, but with no ties. 

This is understandable compensation for the insecurity of their new situation. However, it is not necessarily in the public interest, with the Institute for Government’s Whitehall Monitor 2021 pointing out that, “lower administrative spending [as the Civil Service is doing so much with reduced budgets] does also bring risks and may lead to higher costs elsewhere. For example, a bigger and better-funded core Civil Service might have been able to undertake more work in-house.” 

The shrinking Civil Service is an inevitable consequence of the global cycle of boom and bust, resulting in recessions and subsequent calls to reduce head-counts. Re-employing the same staff on one-day’s notice may be more expensive on paper, but it overcomes the need for holiday pay, sick pay or redundancy, allowing departments to better forecast spending, even if it impacts overall value for money. 

Yet this structure doesn’t encourage loyalty or commitment. Lack of notice means a contractor can disappear should a better prospect arise, perhaps in another department or the private sector. Equally, should they stay, the financial model, in which they receive a day’s pay for a day’s work, means that it is in their interest to spin out a job for as long as they can. This could lead to over-runs, over-spending and missed deadlines (although, in reality, the number of committed, diligent and ethical contractors with a background in government who take on such roles means this is more theoretical than empirical). 

Developing a public-private partnership 

This doesn’t get around the fact that an external contractor doesn’t have the same degree of responsibility as an in-house stakeholder. Neither do they have the long-term commitment to a project or a department that results in the kind of mature, rich and deep knowledge that only ongoing experience can deliver. 

Unsurprisingly, not everyone in government approves of increased reliance on consultants. Cabinet Office minister Lord Agnew criticised the practice, claiming that it provided poor value for money and “infantilises the Civil Service by depriving our brightest people of opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues.” 

The perfect solution, then, is a true partnership in which the diverse experience of the consultant and the specialist knowledge and long-term commitment of the career civil servant complement one another. Using niche managed service providers can leverage the benefits of augmenting a team of committed civil service with those of the quality-assured contractors, into a single team, with a single objective. 

Department heads who adopt this model must remain mindful of their internal staff – and should look for opportunities to enrich their experience in the process. Working alongside a consultancy like the Augmentas Group not only frees up team members to concentrate on a smaller range of tasks: it also introduces skills, tools and knowledge that may be lacking in-house. 

Ensuring those virtual assets permeate the team maximises the value of the consultant’s day rate – it ensures it keeps paying back for years to come. 

If you want more information and advice on understanding government and the challenges it faces, contact us on 0208 154 4057 or email info@augmentasgroup.com 

Zoë is Head of Operations at Augmentas, responsible for client and project management, reporting, finance, marketing, recruitment, legal and HR. She works primarily with our public sector clients ensuring they have everything they need for success.

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