Martin Bortz, Research Fellow, Melbourne School of Government
The Melbourne School of Government recently lodged a submission to the Commonwealth’s inquiry into the use of consultants and contractors by government agencies. The inquiry was initiated based on an Auditor-General’s report, which found that there had been significant increases in the reported usage of consultants. The inquiry is focusing on the ways in which procurement rules serve to support the effective use of consultants (or otherwise).
The submission makes several points in response to the inquiry’s terms of reference. The first of these is that there are several definitional and conceptual issues with how we understand the nature and role of consultants in policy processes. Because of this, more work needs to be done to support an assessment of the appropriateness of consulting engagements. While the Commonwealth’s definition of such engagements is appropriate, the way these definitions are implemented may be a cause of confusion.
The submission also discusses the extent to which the use of consultants diminishes the capacity of public servants. On this point, the submission argues that there has not been sufficient research into this phenomenon. While there is some evidence from other procurement practices (i.e. outsourcing), consulting needs to be treated as its own category.
The submission concludes by arguing that an improvement in the quality of consulting engagements could be enhanced through training public servants in the effective use of evidence. This is not to diminish the critical faculties of bureaucrats. Rather, there are technical skills that could be seen as a core competency of public servants.
The use of consultants by government is a topic of much controversy both in the public service and elsewhere. While some see the practice as a useful source of advice, others have concerns over issues of democratic accountability, transparency, and overall influence. Given this, the inquiry represents a timely opportunity to consider this important issue in greater depth.