How government organisations can build in-house capabilities

04 September 2019 5 min. read
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The UK Government could stand to save hundreds of millions of pounds, if it reduced the number of consultants it engaged while upping the number of permanent civil servants it employs. According to Craig Spence of North Highland, “shifting the mix” towards civil servants would also improve the value added to the Government via each completed project, adding key skills and intellectual properties which would otherwise exit with consultants.

Since 2016, the UK’s Civil Service, which is tasked with implementing the policies of the Government, has been tested to its very limits. On the back of years of austerity cuts, which saw Whitehall’s headcount fall dramatically, the sudden strain of implementing sweeping changes to be ready for Brexit has taken a toll on over-stretched Government departments.

Despite claims that the Civil Service is “well equipped to deliver all of this government's priorities – including the UK's exit from the EU,” a union representing Civil Service staff has since warned Whitehall is approaching a breaking point. A survey by the FDA union found more than 80% of top civil servants are having to put in extra unpaid hours just to get their work finished. A quarter said they usually give up between six and ten hours of their time every week, and nearly three quarters believe their department is understaffed.

Craig Spence, Central Government Portfolio Lead, North Highland

One of the ways the Government has often papered over the cracks during this sustained period of stress is to hire consultants. The private firms are billed as providing vital skills, extra capacity, insight and experience from all economic sectors, as well as innovative ways of working to help deliver value for money. However, according to one industry expert, the Government might do well to invest in the Civil Service in the long-term to deliver savings, rather than simply leaning on the consulting sector.

Highlighting talent trends in UK Government, Craig Spence suggested Government organisations ought to consider creating sustainable in-house capabilities over their current consulting dependency. Speaking with, Spence, who is Public Sector Lead at consulting firm North Highland, noted that of the 10,000 people working in the public sector space, roughly a third are civil servants, while the remainder is equally divided between contractors and consultants.

“By shifting that mix much more toward civil servants, you could achieve savings of up to £260 million per year,” Spence stated. “Even if we aimed at something smaller there are substantial savings to be made.”

This is not to say savings are the only benefit to investing in boosting permanent staff numbers, though. Spence also contended that in the long-term, it would be more beneficial for the Civil Service to build up its skill-base, in order to move quickly with changing times.

He explained, “I think some of the challenges the Government faces in project delivery are that while the delivery quality may be good, the value Government gets from of the project over the long-term is lower, because the intellectual property built up and the knowledge leaves with the consultants at the end of the project.”

Central to solving this issue is to change how the Civil Service currently recruits. The North Highland expert explained that the first step to changing the situation is to build a culture in Whitehall where the Government can offer “meaningful career paths for people”, professionalising the sector.

This assertion is markedly different from the defence often used by proponents of outsourcing in the public sector. When criticised for its spending of tax payers’ money on private consultants, the Central Government and local authorities alike have often asserted that these advisory contracts create more value than they spend, while providing specialist skills for a short amount of time without having to keep experts on the pay-roll after the work is done.


One of the ways North Highland has been encouraging Government to change its stance on this front is when it has been engaged as “that big consultant” on a programme, the firm has back-filled roles it has had with civil servants. According to Spence, this demonstrates that the right talent can be recruited to take over roles consultants have held, and as a result, over time the consulting make-up of a department diminishes and the civil servant count grows.

Importantly though, this change also needs to extend beyond investing in hiring new staff. Once civil servants arrive, the Government needs to put significant sums toward their long-term training and up-skilling. At present, this does not seem to be the case, with a Sopra Steria survey having found that despite the Government’s enthusiasm for digital transformation, 43% of Whitehall workers surveyed did not feel their training on the matter had been sufficient, while a third of respondents said they had studied in their own time to ensure they had the digital skills for their role.

Clarifying how consulting firms can help further drive this, Spence concluded, “Yes it’s about building capacity, but it’s also about having a very strong focus on capability and community. Whether it’s helping to build the home for people to be brought into, whether it’s ensuring that any major programme gets the right mix over time of consulting input and civil service capability, or whether it’s being the long-term partner to provide the top-up to allow for variation in demand, these are all opportunities where consultants can help public sector organisations move forward on this journey.”