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Government dependence on pricey consultants failing to get major projects on track

11 December 2020

An underlying lack of skills in the civil service contributes to much of the ineffectiveness and inefficiency that “afflicts” projects and programmes across Whitehall, with some that the Public Accounts Committee scrutinises “plagued by the same issues year after year”. 

The Cabinet Office acknowledges that the civil service has major skills gaps in the science, commercial and digital sectors, as well as in the management of large projects. These gaps impede progress and lead to outsourcing to high-cost consultants, as in the delayed and over-budget High Speed 2 and Crossrail projects.

Echoing its recent report on Whitehall’s preparations for EU exit, the Public Accounts Committee says that rather than developing and retaining in-house skills and expertise, Government is often “too quick to spend money on consultants to undertake work that could actually be better done by existing civil servants”. 

The Cabinet Office estimates the current cost of using consultants across government is nearly £1 billion - £980 million. This amount is likely to increase in 2020-21 because of the need to fill gaps in capacity and skills as a result of covid-19 and EU exit. The lack of skills has been exacerbated by civil service pay restrictions and significant salary disparities between departments, which has led to difficulties with both the recruitment and the retention of specialists. 

Despite PAC repeatedly highlighting the root cause of these issues, government has consistently failed to adequately address the lack of skills - meaning waste, delays and budgetary overruns have continued. This undermines repeated assurances by government that it is committed to tackling the issue.

Chair's comments

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

“Government’s preferred response to failing projects is too often to pay out billions to consultants rather than investing in developing skills, expertise and knowledge in public services. This short-term approach does nothing to improve the civil service’s capacity and capability for the future. Instead it is a constant drain on public funds with little evidence of benefits.

“We’ve got a long economic slog ahead of us in the wake of covid-19, and the Government is pinning a lot of hope on massive infrastructure and environmental projects - it cannot continue this pattern of huge waste and loss, or we will never get out of the hole we are in.”

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