Here come the in-sultants


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When I first started in local government one of my major bug bears was the fact that there were so many consultants operating within my council. It seemed that at the time every single council department had a consultant or two reviewing, implementing or otherwise prognosticating about the performance of one service or another.

My argument at the time was that if the council staff were good enough to do the job they were surely good enough to spend some time reviewing the service, if not of their own service (they might be too close to it) then certainly that of one of the other services in the council.

Flash forward a few (non-specified amount of) years and the craze seems to have caught on. Local authorities are falling over themselves to set up central teams of internal consultants made up of enthusiastic staff who are willing to take a short secondment into a separate team to ‘transform’ the council.

For ease of expression I describe these staff as in-sultants.

These teams have the potential to do a lot of good; after all unlike the consultants of days gone by they actually know the particular authority, how it works, what cultural aspects need to be taken care of and what changes have already been tried and failed. Being from within the organisation what they say should be taken with a little more respect by other staff (we’re all in this together right?) than when it comes out of the mouths of no-it-all £1000 per day consultants.

Finally, and not insignificantly, it is a substantially amount cheaper than if the local authorities bring in consultants.
However, not all is rosy in the in-sultant garden. Often, these teams are envisaged as secondment only teams and therefore tend to attract only lower level staff, who see it as an opportunity, rather than the experienced managers who are increasingly being marginalised.

These younger staff are often enthusiastic, committed, smart and willing to go the extra mile. However, being young can often be a disadvantage, especially when trying to sell these new ideas to sceptical older managers. I’ve heard some pretty bad stories from friends new to local government who have found these roles as pretty intimidating.

The other dangerous thing is that often these staff become true believers and a little unbending in their implementation of ‘transformation’. This can make them a little unsympathetic to the ordinary members of staff who find the massive change difficult to cope with and are less than enthusiastic about it.

However, on balance the rise of the in-sultants has to be welcomed and is, in my mind, yet another indication that local government can be basically self-sufficient and that the past reliance on consultants has come to it’s natural end.

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10 Comments on “Here come the in-sultants”

  1. Jon Harvey Says:

    I have been an advocate of local authorities (and all other public services) running their own improvement processes for a long time. (See, for example, my http://smallcreativeideas.blogspot.com/ blog which has over 300+ ideas on how to improve efficiency & effectiveness – and which has now been browsed over 20,000 times. There is an introduction to it here too: http://jonharveyassociates.blogspot.com/2011/02/do-you-know-where-your-smalls-are.html which echoes many of your sentiments)

    All too often, consultants are brought in to ‘do change / improvement to’ the organisation in question, at huge cost and often with negligible or unsustainable (or both) results. (See http://jonharveyassociates.blogspot.com/2009/09/another-consultants-report-bites-dust.html for a description of various models of consultancy as set out by Edgar Schein – and why often the wrong model is used by organisations)

    As a long time external consultant (22 years and counting) – I know that being an ‘in-sultant’ is 10 times harder. Notwithstanding the ‘prophet in your own land’ issue (which I think is often over egged) – the real problem comes with whether the internal consultants can challenge (or initiate the processes which can challenge) the organisation’s leaders in a way that invokes lasting change. This does not come from any skill deficit necessarily (although us consultants do have some different skills…) – but it does come from the fact that the internal consultants are ‘of’ the organisation. In other words they have their careers invested in maintaining their standing in the organisation. Being just a tad too challenging can be severely career limiting in some organisations. But the ~belief~ that it is – is present in most, in my experience.

    A good external consultant often acts like a court jester who can dare to say things to the King/Queen – that no one else can. Of course if the jester goes too far – heads roll & contracts are terminated (which has certainly happened to me in the past).

    All this is not me trying to justify the huge consultancy contracts that you allude to. I think far too many consultants do far too much for clients – and should, instead, be more empowering and sharing of their skills. Equally, I think many clients purchase consultancy in a lazy way and just want extra pairs of hands to do work that is often of no real value. (How many fat consultancy reports and, what I call, ‘strutegies’ can you find just gathering dust?)

    Finally, I would add that there is a danger that these ‘in-sultants’ will merely mimic the poor kinds of consultancy practised by the external consultants. I am record for saying that

    a) public services don’t have customers – they have clients / users / citizens instead – but this has not prevented the likes of McKinsey shoe horning in commercial models into public services, and

    b) please can we have no more endless ‘customer journey process mapping’ which saps energy, resources and creativity (see http://jonharveyassociates.blogspot.com/2010/03/process-mapping-saps-creativity.html)

    In sum – yes, yes, yes use consultants less – but don’t stop using us altogether – we can have a value adding role. But engage us in conversations and procure us wisely & intelligently…

  2. Penny Says:

    One of the more frustrating experiences of working with consultants is seeing management accept ideas from consultancy teams which the staff have been putting forward for years without being listened to. If the in-sultants can combine the insight of the regular staff with the credibility of a consultant then it ought to be a good thing – even bearing in mind the pitfalls you’ve highlighted.

    By the way, “No-it-all” consultants may be the most inspired typo I’ve ever seen (unless it was deliberate; in which case, hats off!)

  3. Karen Drury Says:

    A bit simplistic, don’t you think? External consultants are often brought in to do the jobs no-one else WANTS to do – re-organising and potentially making people redundant are too uncomfortable for individuals who have to stay within the organisation. It’s much easier (and safer) to hire a hatchet man/woman from outside to do it. You write about this as though there are no political or power considerations for the hirer – which of course there are. This also affects the in-sultants’ credibility in the organisation – if they have to stay in it, how are their decisions tempered by the fact that they have to continue to stay there?

    You also discuss consultants as though they were somehow a lower order of human beings. This is unfortunate because consultants bring an external perspective that CAN ask the stupid questions and challenge assumptions which have been absorbed into the culture. A good consultant – and I agree there are bad ones, just like there are bad employees – should be challenging the status quo if the status quo is dysfunctional.

    PS – is what the internal people do as consultants “in-sulting”?


    • Well, we do like to spark a debate! I hope what came across above was an uncertainty about whether of not the in-sultant was a good thing…

      As for the later comment I can only apologise. I certainly do not see consultants as a lower order of human beings; a richer order maybe but often they are well paid for a good reason.

      However, as a junior officer you have to understand that there is nothing more frustrating than your manager brining in consultants to justify a policy which you, as the staff member, have already developed. I understand that politics and power come into play but in my mind that often means the manager doesn’t have the courage in their own convictions. I might be being dangerously naive but if something is worth doing then bringing in external help doesn’t change that.

      However, there are areas where consultants are very valuable; either where they bring in a special skill not owned internally or where, as you say, tough questions need to be asked and an external eye is best placed to do so.

      Often, the problem with consultants is as Jon says below; they are procured for the wrong reason with bad goals set and no management etc.

      The people are not at fault.

      PS. Reading it back I can see why the in-sultant thing might lead people to think of insulting… I merely meant they were ‘in’ the council.

      I guess it’s much like I don’t believe that con-sultants are necessarily a con!

      • Karen Drury Says:

        I wonder if organisations themselves recognise how disheartening it is for consultants to make suggestions which – often for only a lack of courage – our clients reject.
        There is often a lack of gumption – not about asking the difficult questions, which is easy, but about doing something with the answers.


      • I think those of us further down the chain really empathise… Sometimes senior managers see it like a transaction; the consultants provide a service and what they do with it is up to them… Of course this is part of the problem. Treating the work you’re paying for like that almost ensures that it won’t work…

        What you call gumption I call cojones and yes, many managers need to grow some!

  4. Jon Harvey Says:

    1) Loads of evidence of creativity and innovation at the coal face (http://smallcreativeideas.blogspot.com/ & http://www.bis.gov.uk/files/file52215.pdf)

    2) Public services don’t always procure consultancy well (http://jonharveyassociates.blogspot.com/2009/09/another-consultants-report-bites-dust.html)

    3) Internal consultant role is far harder to manage than being an external consultant due to being of the organisation than apart from it

    4) Danger that internal consultants mimic poor consulting practices (please no more shoe horning ‘we only have customers’ into the public services or endless ‘process mapping that saps creativity, resources and energy: http://jonharveyassociates.blogspot.com/2010/03/process-mapping-saps-creativity.html)

    5) Some external consultants add value – but they should be used sparingly not lazily


    • Cheers Jon, nice links and insightful comments… And on point 2) I couldn’t agree more!

      On point a) from above we already have something lined up for later next week about that very issue… Great (well, average in my case) minds think alike!


  5. […] PRINCE 2 allows local authorities to handle projects internally without the need for bringing in outside consultants. Trusting your own staff is much easier when they have a qualification that ‘proves’ they can […]


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