Elders – the ideal government consultants

Jun 26, 2023
Mature executive manager explaining online project to young employee learning new skills.

We have a lot to learn from the PWC debacle and Julian Cribb’s paper “Look out! Here Come the Elders”.

Older people and the young have the time, and the ability (due to not owing an employer support), to change the world. In this paper I will summarise four examples of learnings relating to employing consultants, and then suggest ways forward.

In my years working in Canberra four examples stand out:

  1. In the Health Department where the Minister wanted to review a program prior to an election so as to make announcements, despite my concerns about employing a consultant when we had the expertise internally, the Minister’s Office told me it was a political issue and therefore a review had to be done independently. The consultant then asked me what result I wanted and how he should undertake the task and, realising he had no expertise in the area, I therefore held his hand and basically did much of his work for him so the result would not be too dreadful.

Learning: If your masters insist you use consultants ensure they do an adequate job. The bad side of this is they may be awarded more work!

  1. In the Department of Primary Industries and Energy (DPIE) I took over responsibility for a consultancy by one of the big 4. As Chair of the Steering Committee, and the first progress report being due, I arranged a meeting. The Partner said they had realised they could not do a sizeable chunk of the project for the price quoted as they had realised it was more complicated than they had first thought. I explained that we had accepted their quote as they said they could do it for that price – we knew it was complicated – so they should assess whether they would be prepared to do it for that price, or withdraw. They withdrew. I then employed a small specialist consultancy. He stated he could do ¾ but did not have the expertise to do one part which he thought would be best done internally. I agreed to doing the project collaboratively and then presenting jointly at a conference.

Learning: Small specialist consultancies are usually honest about their competencies and can be excellent and are reasonably priced.

  1. I had been working in DPIE as an internal consultant doing reviews of programs for a couple of years and a friend who worked in the Canberra Office of one of the big 4 asked me if I would like to work with them. I was interested as they did quite a lot of performance audits for the Audit Office which had a staffing cap. I met the head of the Office (both he and my friend were ex-public servants) and he said he would like to employ me, but said a new Director had just been employed in Sydney who had oversight of his office and she wanted to interview me – he said it was just a formality. It was not a formality, she said reviews would be very brief – just a couple of pages of findings and recommendations. I argued that public servants wanted analysis of data and consultation with staff, clients and other stakeholders, so they would not accept such brief reviews. She said it works in the private sector and that is what they would do in future. She then employed a young graduate for the office.

Learning: The big 4 charge big money for small work which is inadequate. The Audit Office should have been able to employ more staff – thank heavens this is happening now.

  1. A friend with a small consultancy firm asked me and another public health specialist if we would put in a proposal with her for a review and plan development for two major linked national NGOs. We talked to the CEOs of the two organisations and then developed the proposal, which was to be funded by the Department of Health. We were then told we had been unsuccessful. About 18 months later my friend told me one of the CEOs told her the Department had insisted on employing one of the big 4 as they had put 2 professors on the bid who would provide expertise (about a week each) and the partner had some suitable background. However, the company sent a young graduate with no background to do the work, which was dreadful, and their report was rejected. The CEO wished we had done the project as we had a high level of expertise and our fees were very reasonable.

Learning: Don’t be impressed by experts who will provide minimal advice. Select based on the expertise of the people who will do the work.

There are many ways forward:

Hopefully with the planned re-skilling of public servants, the government will kill the policy of persuading public servants to give up their specialisation and become generalists. Back in the day, we were all pressured to take jobs in areas where we had no expertise so as to “get experience” and that there was no way we could move up the system to a position of influence unless we became generalists. To reject this meant stagnation but in my view a happier life using one’s skills.

There are many ex-public servants who work as consultants in small specialist consultancy firms. They need to promote themselves better as so often the jobs go to the big 4. Hopefully with the shock of PWC these small specialist firms will be considered more. They can augment the skills in the public service while a big push is underway to recruit, train and retrain people in the specialist skills required.

Many people who have retired from regular paid employment, still do some small amounts of paid consultancy work, and do volunteer work for NGOs and local community groups and for neighbours and local schools and sporting groups. They write letters to papers, sign petitions, demonstrate on issues, run courses at U3A and write in P&I. They have not retired from life.

One of the problems with doing voluntary work is that people in the paid workforce often assume it will be inferior and not up to the same standard. If someone offers to do a review of a service voluntarily the decision-makers often think that, if the person is not touting for pay, they must not be very good. So often those with skills who offer to work voluntarily are rejected in favour of those who demand high fee rates. This is a mind-set that needs to be changed, as more and more older people are living longer, and are very intellectually and physically able to do work for many years. Most do not see money as the god. If they have enough material resources they are happy to offer their skills free for a good cause and just be paid expenses if they need to travel.

As Julian says “Here Come the Elders.” But we all need to work hard to ensure the skills of elders are appreciated and used. We need to promote their skills – maybe through skill banks advertised through community papers and local organisations. It is important that elders do not just work in the “elder” community. We need to get them working in the mainstream – their skills are essential. They can run risks other won’t. Seeing they have had a good life they can risk prison when demonstrating, and upsetting someone, as their job does not depend on them keeping quiet. Lets put time and effort into assisting Elders be used more effectively in changing the world.

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