Monday, 23 January 2012

Why the MOD was arguably right to spend £1.1m on consultants for SDSR disposals.

Travelling on the tube today, Humphrey noted the story in the Evening Standard about 'MPs outrage' that the MOD had spent £1.1m on consultants since the SDSR to advise on disposals

Notwithstanding the fact that the author is outraged just about every time he reads his MPs expenses claim forms, or hears verbatim just badly certain MPs behaved during trips to Operational Theatres (allegedly some very bad behaviour indeed (allegedly)), the question remains, do they have a point in being outraged?

Humphries emphatic answer is NO. Its very easy to get worked up when you read about consultants, they tend to be portrayed as the sort of slimy morally absent creatures who are more concerned with sneaking a glance at your watch prior to telling you the time and then billing you for the experience. The idea that public money is being used to get advice from them, particularly when something is being scrapped, is an easy way to win public outrage, get free headlines, and not really understand why the MOD is doing what is doing.

In this case, as Humphrey understands it, the MOD has  contracted the services of a highly specialised group of consultants to provide some bespoke advice on areas where the department had either no expertise, or needed external guidance. It stands to reason that if the department had the expertise in house, then it wouldn't have needed to bring the contractors in - but the reality is that the department doesn't have the expertise anymore. People don't understand how much in house experience has gone - a process arguably begun in 1994, and exacerbated through the 1998 SDR and beyond. This ties into the wider public / Daily Mail argument that anyone in government service is a parasite of the state, and therefore should be disposed (preferably with extreme violence).

The MOD is caught between two equally strong poles of outrage here - on the one hand people are angry that it is bringing in external consultants to advise on disposals. So the argument goes, this is a sign that the MOD has too much money, and is staffed by inept individuals who know not what they are doing. Yet at the same time, had MOD not divested itself of the experts, or had chosen not to bring in consultants, then the headlines would run that MOD was massively overstaffed by inept individuals who don't know how to get the best return on public money when disposing of kit, and why didn't they seek to get private sector involvement in the first place.

Right now MOD is trying to handle the twin challenges of downsizing its workforce - many of whom are tired, demoralised and in no mood to play nicely, and also downsize its equipment holdings. The skills needed to do this are either nonexistent, or the people who can do it are moving away as fast as they can. The MOD needs to recoup every penny possible from the disposal of assets to help solve the incredible financial spending legacy of the last Government (and having seen the figures, it is quite scary how big the problem was for the equipment programme). Humphrey believes it is better to spend money on getting some real specialists in, in order to help get the best possible return for the taxpayer, rather than making a false economy and not doing so, thus scoring cheap political short term brownie points, and long term damaging headlines.

More seriously, this indicates the way the department will have to go in future. Vast swathes of knowledge, often built up over decades of experience, are being lost forever. The rumoured additional 9000 cuts to the MOD CS will make this even worse. The public have to be brought around to the idea that less money means less knowledge, and this means when even relatively basic things need doing, the external consultants need to be brought in for assistance. Its not nice, its not politically popular, but if its the only way that the MOD will be able to do that which its political masters seek of it, then surely there is no other way?

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