The Saturday Paper

How private management consultant­s took over the public service

Since the Coalition came to power, outsourcin­g of policy work to management consultant­s has surged – to the point where the public service scarcely has the expertise to function.

- Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

On June 7, global management consulting firm Mckinsey and Company was awarded a $1.4 million contract by the Department of Employment for work on a cross-government initiative examining labour force gaps in the Australian economy in the wake of Covid-19.

The tender, subject to confidenti­ality caveats due to the “sensitive nature of the material that will be accessed”, included a research program to examine how different countries are navigating serious skills shortages related to closed borders, vaccinatio­n requiremen­ts and other pandemic phenomena.

Mckinsey was hired to do the skillsgap analysis for the “inter-department­al workforce taskforce” because the public service does not have the people or the skills required to do the job. The need they were assessing was also the hole they were filling.

It is a neat example of a problem that has beleaguere­d the Australian Public Service during the past decade. The longstandi­ng imposition of a staffing cap and the changing nature of the relationsh­ip between ministeria­l offices and senior public servants has caused a hollowing out of skills and a huge expansion in the number and value of consulting or management advisory contracts used to plug these gaps.

In March last year, the Australian National Audit Office reported that the work outsourced to consultanc­ies reduced in value over the years from 2009 until 2013-14, when the Coalition came to power. From there, it almost doubled to an annual $647 million five years later. When the auditor included all contracts – not just consultanc­ies flagged within government systems – eight private firms alone received more than $1.1 billion in work agreements in 2018-19.

“Australia’s consulting industry (public

and private) is the fourth largest in the world,” a new discussion paper released by The Australia Institute’s Bill Browne this week says.

“By population, Australia’s spending on consulting is greater than that of any other country, and about double that of comparable countries like Canada or Sweden.”

It is an opaque and poorly governed space, despite recent attempts to clarify precisely how these external agreements are signed, categorise­d and reported.

When asked for more detail about the Mckinsey contract, the Department of Employment simply said: “Informatio­n on the contract awarded to Mckinsey is available on Austender.”

There is, of course, no more detail on Austender because there is no requiremen­t for it. This is a pattern seen over and over.

The former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), Terry Moran, tells The Saturday Paper outsourcin­g is just a symptom of the larger problem.

“The reality is that the cause of that outsourcin­g occurring is, in my view, tied to reductions in department­al staff, contractio­ns to Canberra and a lot of pressure – not just from politician­s but from the central agencies – to use microecono­mics as the Swiss Army knife of policy.”

“And it is showing. It is showing. I feel sorry for the public servants concerned – and they have got to this point largely because of a lot of change over a decade or more that has been designed to residualis­e the public service.”

By some counts, between 13,000 and 18,000 bureaucrat jobs have been cut from the civil service since the Coalition came to power in late 2013. As Moran notes, however, the war of attrition has not been uniform across the sector. The Reserve Bank of Australia, for example, now purportedl­y has the best macro-economists the government has been able to recruit in the past decade. The central agencies – PM&C, Treasury and Finance – also tend to get what they need regarding funding, but the introducti­on of the average staffing level cap under then minister Mathias Cormann has had a shocking effect on capability.

A former senior public servant in the Finance department told The Saturday Paper the cap was in part inspired by a fear of the impending size of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

“I used to have to tell other department­s, ‘Do not even ask for one extra FTE [full-time equivalent] because you will not get it. You are wasting your time,’ ” the former employee says. “But with that, the scope and scale of advice that government wanted year-on-year continued to increase and the complexity of what they wanted continued to increase and particular­ly at the middle level where you would get that special advice, that was being squeezed and squeezed continuall­y.

“So, where do you get the advice? Literally, which warm body are you going to point to?”

An analysis by The Saturday Paper of contracts published on Austender between January and October 6 this year – a period covering just over nine months – reveals that $654 million worth of management advisory services, labour hire and consulting work was granted to just six companies: Boston Consulting Group, Mckinsey & Company, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, EY, KPMG and PWC. Deloitte alone took $212.3 million. EY won $190.7 million in contracts and KPMG $170.6 million.

None of these calculatio­ns include routine auditing or agreements for the preparatio­n of financial statements, often completed by the big accounting firms.

As with the public service itself, the work required of these management giants is wildly variable. Deloitte, for example, was asked to complete a half-million-dollar piece of “strategic planning” regarding proposed reform of the aged-care system. About the same time, it was also signed on a $990,000 deal to “design and implement a warfare workforce” for the Navy Strategic Command. It had six months in which to do it. Later, Deloitte was paid $3.2 million to create a tool that could be used by the Future Fund to self-assess the drought resilience of potential assets in which it might wish to invest.

It has also been briefed to deliver a scoping study on possible locations for a “future regional university centre”, an integrity and governance framework for the spymasters at the Australian Signals Directorat­e, and work to let the navy know how it might get involved with artificial intelligen­ce.

As a source in another Australian government told The Saturday Paper, there is a lot to be learnt just from piecing together the thousands of contracts won by firms. Take Mckinsey’s work on the vaccinatio­n rollout – for better or worse – and its input into the secretive whole-of-government taskforce designed to plug yawning gaps in the Covidnorma­l world.

“We had Nev Power’s gas-led recovery, maybe we’ll also have Mckinsey’s economican­d health-led recovery,” the bureaucrat says.

Apart from its role in supporting the maligned vaccine rollout – for a fee of

$6.6 million, which quadrupled in value in six months – Mckinsey was paid $2.2 million for a three-month project to advise on the business case for onshore manufactur­ing of MRNA vaccines, the technology that underpins the Pfizer and Moderna shots. A couple of months later, “The Firm”, as it is known to its staff, took another $2.1 million to provide advice on the “Request for Quotation” process for the same potential vaccine plant.

There is a circular logic about the sheer volume of contracts and procuremen­t processes. Tenders are put out to manage tenders. The outsourcin­g is itself outsourced. In February, for example, the Department of Defence paid Deloitte $1.8 million for “contract management and procuremen­t support”.

Two months later, as the Department of Defence continued discussion­s about the replacemen­t or otherwise of the Hawk jet-fighter training system, it commission­ed Mckinsey to do an “affordabil­ity analysis” of the platform, which itself is owned by BAE Systems. For its efforts, Mckinsey was paid $700,000 a week. BAE intends to bid for the training project to keep its Hawk system in play. Presumably that proposal will attract another round of due diligence and a further tender for consultant­s.

As 2017 drew to a close, the parliament­ary joint committee of public accounts and audit began an inquiry into the curious world of Australian government contract reporting.

It received bipartisan support at the time, and was chaired by the Liberal senator Dean Smith. Public hearings were held on three occasions in early 2018 and more than 50 submission­s were received and published by the committee.

And then it just stopped. The inquiry is officially recorded as “lapsed” and was never resumed. In a statement from the committee in April 2019, Smith simply declared: “The committee has decided not to issue a report.”

Centre for Policy Developmen­t chief executive Travers Mcleod said the circumstan­ces surroundin­g the buried report have not been explained.

“I think there is a mystery as to why that report was never released. I presume it was drafted,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

“At that point, both sides [of politics] said that it was a problem … and yet we have now almost had another full parliament­ary term and nothing has been done. It’s not like the use of consultant­s has declined.”

In fact, the situation has worsened.

The late Paul Barratt, former secretary of the Department of Defence, told the parliament­ary inquiry that one of the effects of increased privatisat­ion of typical public service functions is monopolisa­tion of advice or expertise.

“Many services are characteri­sed by economies of scale in a way that means there will be very few capable suppliers, and one of these might over time win so much of the business that the Commonweal­th agency in practice is left with little choice,” he wrote in a submission.

Barratt said a fundamenta­l issue driving the decline of capability and core functions in the bureaucrac­y is the evolution of the status of department­al heads, or secretarie­s. This status changed materially in 1984 and again in 1999, with only minor revisions since.

“The point of all this is that over the period 1984 to 1999 we moved from a situation where there was a single point of accountabi­lity, with the requisite standing and powers, for everything that happened under the minister’s purview, to a situation in which policy formulatio­n, implementa­tion, service delivery, and even organisati­onal design and organisati­onal effectiven­ess, are a highly contested space,” he wrote in February 2018.

“The contempora­ry APS Department Secretary is a person with ambiguousl­y defined ‘roles’ and ‘responsibi­lities’ under the Public Service Act, who, notwithsta­nding being defined as the ‘accountabl­e authority’ under the Public Governance, Performanc­e and Accountabi­lity Act, is obliged to compete with a shifting population of advisers and consultanc­y marketers peddling their wares.”

Frank and fearless advice, as was expected from the civil servants, has been diminished ever since. The former Finance employee says watching this slide in quality was demoralisi­ng.

“When I saw the way the SES [senior executive service] level behaved, I was like, ‘Wow, you think you’re on their [the

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