Government will always need management consultants
Our management consultancy columnist, Mick James, this week talks to Kieran White of White Consultants Limited about consulting to the public sector.  26.11.2008

By now everyone has become reconciled with the idea that there’s a tough year ahead but how tough is a big question. In the private sector, consultancy budgets are very much viewed as “discretionary spend”, but at least in the short-term companies are going to need to do a lot of work that they will struggle to manage without assistance. In the public sector the issues are even more complex. On the one hand the government clearly sees public spending as having an important role in softening the effects of the recession, particularly where projects can be brought forward. On the other hand consultancy spending is under tighter scrutiny than ever, both from within government and also from the opposition parties, who have never shown the slightest hesitation in using consultancy spending as a stick to batter the government with.

It’s something that’s concerned Kieran White of White Consultants Limited (WCL), a consultancy majoring in complex change, performance improvement and programme management that does 90% of its business with the public sector.

“It all looks a bit worrying, and we wondered if we needed to change our story,” he says. “But we’re OK with stuff that’s already set in stone.”

White believes that in many ways a smaller consultancy such as WCL, with 31 full-time staff and 14 associates, is better placed than the “big boys”.

“There’s been a move on the public sector from long-term projects to short-term, 20 day assignments,” he says. “The bigger boys doing the big projects, which are a bit more visible, a bit more emotional—maybe they are more vulnerable. That said; I’ve yet to hear of any of the big firms announcing redundancy rounds.”

Even though firms like WCL are under increasing scrutiny to justify their use by the public sector, White believes this is good for the industry as a whole and that most firms will come out of it stronger.

Nor is he worried about a catastrophic collapse in spending if the government changes.

“That’s nonsense—the first thing that a new government would do is to introduce new policies and if you’re trying to make that happen, you need consultants round you,” he says. In fact this is where WCL has positioned a major part of its offerings, delivery chain efficiency.

“The biggest challenge for people in government is trying to deliver change, understanding what levers you need to pull,” says White. “The government tends to focus on infrastructure, you see very little on the demand side. When you ask people in government what their delivery chain looks like, and then map it onto what people on the front line say, there’s an amazing mismatch.”

Demand-led change is a major plank of WCL’s proposition, which White says is founded on “good solid programme management”, with a strong emphasis on the personal and psychological issues.

“We have our own view and our own methodology, which is all about engaging with as many people as possible from the outset,” he says.

WCL derives about half its public sector turnover from central government, which White sees as an unending source of change.

“The interesting thing about central government is that they’re in the business of change, always putting out new thoughts and trying to influence new views,” he says “Every year there’s a new challenge.”

But the firm has also made significant headway in the traditionally more operational and more intractable area of local government.

“When we started, local government offered the most commercial excitement, with the thought that what you did for one you could replicate in 39 other clients,” he says. “In reality we haven’t seen a lot of movement in that area.”

Cost of sale is a big issue with local government, given its geographical spread and the large number of local consultants.

“There are a lot of ex-professionals who’ve reinvented themselves as consultants and are going back at £350 a day to the people they used to work for,” he says. “As a management consultancy you do look expensive, but it’s all about the level of support they get when they use management consultancy as opposed to expert consultancy. The big thing is the team—you might only have one person working in your organisation but they have access to the whole of that company.”

White says he is also sometimes frustrated by clients’ automatic preference for whoever has the most experience of their particular area.

“Particularly in health and education, it’s very hard to get new people in there,” he says. “You have to do it on the back of another team member and as people join consultancy to get wider experience those people aren’t always too pleased.”

But broadening his people’s experience is important for White, as it forms a vital part of achieving the firm’s long-term goals. The firm has just got to the stage where it can recruit junior consultants and give them the attention they deserve, and is beginning to impose a more structured approach in a firm which nevertheless still has a very laissez-faire and entrepreneurial culture.

”Our strategy is to try and create a management team that can run the company so the founding members can take more of a back seat,” he says. “That means we’re going to keep recruiting to our plan, holding our nerve and hoping that more and more great people turn up.”

All views expressed in this article are those of Mick James and do not necessarily reflect the views of and

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