Condemning Consultants

By Mohamed Motala · 27 Oct 2009

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Picture: Ariela da Silva Parreira
Picture: Ariela da Silva Parreira

South African politicians have recently made strong statements regarding the use of consultants in government. In June this year the premier of Gauteng Nomvula Mokonyane said that the province would be reviewing its relationships with consultants. This sentiment was reiterated more recently at the local government indaba where the minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Sicelo Shiceka also made reference to the use of consultants in municipalities as one of the areas that needed to be reviewed to improve the functioning of municipalities.

These statements point to a frustration within government about being provided with poor services by consultants who are contracted to deliver particular products. However, if these sentiments are to be taken in an unqualified manner they could do more harm than good to government service delivery. This is because it is important to differentiate between services that are best performed inside government and those that would be better performed outside, as well as what kind of consultants should be engaged. 

The concise oxford dictionary defines consultants as experts who give professional advice. However, when reference is made to consultants in our government, the term seems to have become synonymous with individuals that have no organisational affiliation and who adopt almost mercenary behaviour in their execution of tasks.

One of the most peculiar consulting jobs to be brought to light recently is Glen Agliotti's claim that he was paid a "consultancy fee" of one million US Dollars by Bret Kebble for an introduction to Jackie Selebi. 

Mercifully, nefarious Agliotti style consultants are the exception. However, the latter-day technical consultant is often perceived as the professional and clinical hit man or woman who has all sorts of quick fix solutions. 

Organisational growth and development is not the consultant's forte and the products of his or her involvement often privilege form over content. Moreover, while government does require support and capacity where these are in short supply, there is little transfer of skills between consultants and government staff.

The reality on the ground is that service providers will deliver what they can and also what they deem to be sufficient in fulfilling their contractual obligations when work is 'task' and 'fee-based', as opposed to being done by permanently employed persons. This situation requires proper management by the agent contracting the service.

However, government's failure to select the right service provider and to manage consultants should not lead to a blanket withdrawal and refusal to use the services of consultants. 

There are definitely some areas where services are best performed outside of government. There is a clear differentiation of the kinds of services that are needed by government and clear reasons why some should be done inside of government and others outside. Consequently, there is a definite need for external agencies to work with government. 

The responsibility to manage government programs must reside within government. However, the measuring of performance is best located outside of government.

The most important contribution by government in questioning the role of consultants is perhaps to assist in the definition of what types of consultancies and whom government uses. A disturbing trend that is emerging locally is the entry of large multinational consulting firms in areas of government procurement that historically have been occupied by local service providers, be they South African consulting firms or South African NGOs. 

The declining global economy is forcing large international firms to procure work from sectors that they have historically not worked in and the development, monitoring and evaluation of social policy is an area that has attracted their attention.

However, the use of multinationals comes at a cost. Not only do they lead to a drain in resources out of the country and prevent the growth of local professionals, they are also not optimally placed to understand the social realities within which local programs are being evaluated. 

Be that as it may, a functioning democracy is premised on the strength of a strong civil society to hold government accountable. And while the South African government has increased its use of professional consultants including international firms, its engagement with civil society has declined and been reduced to securing welfare support services. 

Typically, civil society fills the gap where government service delivery or private sector service providers do not go. Home-based care and early childhood development are examples of areas dominated by NGOs.  These functions are not profitable for the private sector, so government welcomes NGOs. 

But government's conception of civil society’s purpose and role is limited in this regard and in reviewing its engagement with consultants, government should also be reviewing its engagement with civil society as consultants.

As agents who act in the public good, civil society is best placed to monitor and evaluate the performance of government programs. Their role as consultants, in this manner, is central to realising good service delivery by government. 

NGO's that are able to provide quality consulting services have the added advantage of being driven by a set of values that are aligned with the overall objectives of government and in this regard make good consultants compared to individuals or private companies.

To conclude, while government's review of its engagement with consultants is welcomed, it should refrain from throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Motala is executive director of CASE, the Community Agency for Social Enquiry.

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Prof Doreen Atkinson, University of the Free State
27 Oct

We Need a Professional Body for Consultants

There are professional bodies for all kinds of disciplines, including engineers, architects, doctors etc. It is time that we create a professional body for consultants working on socio-economic or political issues. Criteria have to be designed on appropriate conduct, and there should be ways in which clients can register dissatisfaction with performance. Members of the body should have proper credentials (e.g. postgraduate degrees). We should find out how other professional bodies manage their membership. I would welcome Mr. Motala (CASE)'s comment on this suggestion.

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