Can you tell me the time, please?

Even in this part of the world, we have heard the old saying that a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time (the more cynical would add that he then goes on to steal it, though I personally – as my friends would freely acknowledge – do not have a single sceptical bone in my body). However, the underlying message does not seem to have got through to Norfolk County Council. In the five years to 31st March 2010, the Council has spent a huge £14.71m on external consultants and agencies. And this does not include amounts paid out by its wholly owned trading company.


The year for which most information is available is 2008-2009, when expenditure on consultants ran to £3.84m spread over some 90 firms. In seeking to justify that figure, in response to a question from a Labour councillor, the Council leader contended that this amounted to only 0.3% approximately of the Council’s gross budget. With respect, that is a totally disingenuous argument that could be applied to any items of expenditure incurred by the Council, and is barely helpful. It does not, of itself, come anywhere near justifying why such a large sum was spent.


Where did the money go that year? Well, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young between them were paid a total of £845k. Some of this was apparently attributable to “specialist accounting services”, some of it to “management consultancy services”. Despite the fact that the Council has a sixty-strong legal team, which even finds time to provide legal services to a number of outside bodies, it still spent £214k on the services of outside firms of solicitors.Wrist-watch


The now infamous “Modern Reward Strategy Project” soaked up another £588k in consultancy fees. Five firms together were paid a total of £406k for assisting the Council in opposing a bid by one of the underlying district councils to achieve unitary status. I suspect that one of those was a firm of political lobbyists. (Don’t tell Eric Pickles!)


On the PFI front, consultants were paid a total of £641k. Two-thirds of that was attributable to a major waste treatment plant, the plans for which were abandoned at a very late stage. On the “sundry” front, £987k was paid to some fifty firms of consultants in relation to what the Council describes as “small consultancy assignments”. How can this be viewed as an efficient way of proceeding?


The problem, as ever, is a lack of detailed information. I extracted all of this by means of requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but that was only scratching the surface. Thankfully, Eric Pickles has now decreed that all local authorities will shortly have to publish online details of all items of expenditure incurred that exceed £500. What a pity that we have had to wait until now!
As on a separate occasion, I accepted the invitation to the public set out on the Council’s website “to make suggestions about areas of service or Council policies that could be looked at by its cabinet scrutiny committee”. I even submitted a reasoned paper. As on a separate occasion, the Tory majority on the committee voted against accepting my suggestions.


Local authorities may ask what exactly is wrong with engaging external consultants? The Council’s leader stated that they provide “specialist skills that were not otherwise available within the organisation”. Perhaps that is a good thing. But not when the Council at the same time employs layers of expensive directors and managers. (The total remuneration bill last year for the six chief officers alone was £1.05m.) If these people lack the “specialist skills” required, they should not have been employed in the first place. There is certainly no sign of the Council making realistic efforts to get rid of many of these directors and managers. It paid PricewaterhouseCoopers £144k last year to review the 600 most senior management posts. To date, only 44 posts have been axed.


All too frequently, a culture grows up within a local authority whereby the appointment of external consultants serves to divert criticism from the authority itself when things subsequently go wrong. It is a form of insurance, at the cost of the public, though without providing the public itself with any worthwhile benefit. This is a luxury that no local authority can now afford, and certainly not while continuing to employ expensive management staff at the same time.


John Martin, Norfolk


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