EDITORIAL – Consultants’ reports: What did we get for $35 million of advice?

The introduction of a higher retirement age for civil servants means government employees can continue working past the age of 60. - PHOTO: Chris Court

The business aphorism – “if you don’t have it, and you need it – you have to buy it” – applies to expertise and specialized knowledge. As such, there is nothing wrong, and much wise, with government hiring consultants to bring their wisdom to bear on arcane and complex subjects. The corollary, of course, is that government receives “value for money” in the form of useful, accurate and actionable information.

Cayman is, after all, a small island country with limited resources – managerial, intellectual and financial. It would be inefficient (and likely impossible) for our public sector to employ full-time, world-class experts to address intermittent issues in discrete fields such as healthcare systems, waste management options or airport design.

In the best cases, consultants can offer experienced, impartial analysis and recommendations for government action.

Having said that, it is difficult to adjudge, in a vacuum, whether the nearly $35 million government spent on outside consultants over the past five years was too much, too little or exactly the right amount. Such an assessment depends on the value of what was received in return – and government’s willingness to act on that information.

This week, the Office of the Auditor General released the results of its audit of government consultancy agreements. Auditors reviewed a sample of 23 consultant contracts from eight Ministries and Portfolios, representing just under half the total $34.9 million government spent on consultants over the fiscal years 2012 to 2017.

Auditors report that government does not routinely monitor how much it spends on consultants, nor does it consistently consider the return on investment (the proverbial “value for money”) when engaging consultants.

They found that while many of the contracts were awarded through a competitive open process, others (which should have been) were not.

Auditors learned that government does not have standard terms and conditions for contracts, nor does it regularly evaluate consultants’ performance – both of which, in most large functioning organizations, constitute routine standard procedure.

And then there is the question of what government officials do with the expertise they have requested, purchased and received.

In basic terms, the “consultant tree” yields only one type of “fruit” – reports – usually filled with observations and recommendations. It is the managers of an enterprise, in this case government officials, who decide whether or not to act on the reports, how and to what extent.

Our government has the unfortunate habit of commissioning expensive consultants’ studies and, when the report almost invariably contains information they’d prefer not to know or acknowledge, then to adopt one of the following avenues of action: sanitize, rewrite, ignore or bury. (Remember the Miller Shaw Report? The EY Report aka Project Future? The Ritch Report? Various reports on local schools?)

Last year, well-known youth advocate Michael Myles tallied nearly a dozen reports on crime and its causes that the government had commissioned since 2001 – with, as police statistics demonstrate, no meaningful implementation.

Without a strategy, accountability and follow-through, the continual hiring of top-dollar consultants is the epitome of “throwing money at a problem” and hoping it will go away.

Try that long enough, and see which disappears first: the problem … or the money.

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