Consultants: how they disappoint us

If management consultants in Britain had any PR sense they would impose a self-denying ordinance to ban any of their number from taking on government work for 12 months.

They really would benefit from having a lower public profile. But they cannot resist talking to newspapers.

News emerged over the weekend that the Home Office is about to add a further tranche of consultancy to its ID cards project, on top of the £35m already spent. The latest raft of work will be on the technical aspects of the scheme, including some advice on what IT system should be used.

What raised eyebrows was the fact that PA Consulting is already in there for its IT expertise. It sounds like the client has hired consultants to check on the consultants.

Accenture's much-publicised withdrawal from the NHS project to computerise patient records confirmed a general perception that the NHS has  been brought low by the deathly combination of managers and consultants - both of whom wrongly assume that the other knows what they are doing.

As well as disappointments in several other high-profile government IT projects, Accenture's move has created deep scepticism in the media about consultants' contribution and usefulness, to say nothing of their cost.

The trouble is that anyone dealing with consultants can easily believe the criticisms. Journalists are under constant pressure to ‘tap into their expertise' and use them as sources, but with a few notable exceptions, the relationship tends to be unsatisfactory. Consultants will deliver bold sweeping statements about the problems in a sector, but too often there is an unsettling absence of detail or usable evidence: what you get is never quite as good as it sounds.

Perhaps the problem is that they are too like journalists. Most people have considerable expertise over a very narrow area. Journalists have a little knowledge over a wide area, which gives them a superficial plausibility provided they don't get overconfident. But whereas no sane person puts a journalist in charge of anything, consultants get such responsibility all the time. They need urgently to lower the public's expectation of what they do.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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