Back in 2008 the then National opposition made two ‘key’ pledges when it came to public services. The first was to ‘cap but not cut’ the number of public servants, and the second was to ‘move resources from the back office to the frontline’. They didn’t keep either promise, but more importantly, evidence is increasingly emerging that their approach to public service provision is costing the taxpayer more, not less.
National’s cap on public service numbers has led to a blowout in consultancy costs, as government agencies continue to deal with the same, or in many cases greater, workloads with fewer people on board to do the work.
Take the Ministry of Education for example. This week I released data that shows they’ve been engaging expensive consultants to undertake core administrative tasks like processing official information requests, drafting ministerial documents, and writing business cases. I’ve got no problem with departments bring in outside expertise when a particular set of skills are required, but this is bread and butter stuff any department the size of the Ministry of Education should be able to deal with.
Between 2008 and 2011 ten of the biggest government departments spent a whopping $910 million on consultants and contractors between them. Those same agencies spent $114 million making people redundant during the same period. Increasingly anecdotal evidence is emerging of former employees being engaged as consultants to do the work they used to do for a lot less when they were employees.
National’s consultancy culture isn’t saving us money, it’s costing us more. It’s also leading to an erosion of the core capability of the public service, and some of the haphazard decisions ministers are making, often based on weak advice, reflect that.
Our democratic system relies on there being a quality public service with the expertise and capability to deliver on the priorities of the government of the day, whomever that may be. That includes the capability to deliver advice the government of the day might not like. Under National, that capability is being seriously eroded.