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Consultants to govts shouldn’t be yes people.  Must push back with alternative views

The debate around the merits and demerits of private consultants in government has gained prominence. The views have merit but it's important to understand the context.

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Consulting with governments or ‘governance consulting’ has become omnipresent in India over the last two decades. One can now find private consultants engaged in most central ministries and departments of state governments across the country. However, recently, the debate around the merits and demerits of private consultants in government has gained prominence.

In a recent article, Yamini Aiyar of the Centre for Policy Research argued that the presence of consultants in government is leading to the creation of a new parallel bureaucracy of professionals who are not directly accountable to citizens. She writes that over time this can hollow out the State. A more vehement critique of the increasing role and influence of consultants has come from Gulzar Natarajan, an IAS officer. In his blog, Natarajan asserts that consultants simplify responses to complex challenges, operate with a significant conflict of interest, provide questionable solutions, and are never held accountable for outcomes. He joins the cause with Aiyar to posit that consultants tend to enfeeble the State, making it dependent on them for carrying out even its core functions.

Both these views have merit, but it is essential to understand the context that is informing them. Most consultants working across central and state governments today come from firms that have moved from providing accounting services to doing management (corporate) consulting to now doing governance consulting, as they saw a bigger ‘market’ to be tapped. These firms operate on a business model that is based on ‘managing accounts’, where an account is a client relationship with a government department.

This model by design incentivises partners and aspiring partners in these firms to bend over backwards to win as many tenders as one can (even if it means compromising on quality), extend contract durations wherever possible (as opposed to building state capacity and timely handing over interventions to the government), and upsell/cross-sell newer areas of work (regardless of whether impact can be created).

Consequently, these firms often end up functioning as ‘body shops’, supplying consultants to take on even basic functions that were earlier being performed by government officials, such as managing meeting logistics, drafting minutes, preparing files, creating routine reports/presentations etc. Since the quality of these consultants is usually better than that of the average department staff, it makes life easier for the bureaucrat heading the department.

This is probably the basis of Aiyar and Natarajan’s critique. However, this line of argument dismisses the significant value addition consultants can bring, especially if it could stem from an alternative approach to governance consulting. It can be in the form of improved development outcomes in the near term and increased state capacity in the longer term. It could empower government departments as opposed to providing crutches to them.

Also Read: Centre for Policy Research’s demise will be India’s tragedy. Here’s an insider history

Impact-first approach

In this alternative approach, let’s call it the ‘impact-first’ governance consulting approach, citizens are the client and the government is an intermediary to serve the client. The goal is to maximise impact for the client, not to appease the intermediary or increase revenues for the consulting firm.

How does this ‘impact-first’ approach manifest itself on a day-to-day basis? For one, it entails resisting the urge, often in order to please government officials, to take on tasks that should ordinarily be handled by government officials. It prioritises sustainability from the onset and works towards handing over all operations to the government during the engagement period itself. Further, it makes speaking up in front of bureaucrats a norm (if not an obligation), to offer well-informed, alternative points of view on how things could be done, of course leaving the final decision to them given their eventual accountability. This could lead to disagreements and friction in the short term but is worth the pushback as the objective is to create impact and not increase the coterie of yes-men surrounding bureaucrats and the political executive.

In essence, this ‘impact-first’ consulting approach is a true thought-partnership with the government to constantly push the envelope on what can be achieved by leveraging diverse technical expertise, latest technological advancements, and innovative change management practices, to maximise impact for citizens.

Also Read: Indian think tanks are growing in big numbers under Modi. But impact, influence questionable

Not an easy route

So what does it take to implement this approach? There are three key enablers needed for this approach to work. First, the consulting firm must be explicit that its reason for existence or primary goal is to maximise impact for citizens and nothing else. This clear statement of intent is very important. Amongst other things, it will determine the kind of work the firm picks up. It will manifest in saying no to work that is unlikely to lead to impact for citizens. It will also manifest in the performance management and promotion criteria for consultants in the firm.

Second, the consulting firm must maintain independence of thought so that it can work in the best interests of citizens. One potential way of doing this is to be less dependent on revenue from the government and fund engagements through impact-driven philanthropies/CSR. But more critical in this regard, are the values the firm espouses (for instance not seeking the slightest of favours from the officials it works with), the mindset that the firm instils (not hesitating to speak up in front of bureaucrats when needed), and the ways of working the firm encourages (avoiding work that should ordinarily be done by government staff), in its consultants. This will allow the firm’s consultants to work as insider-outsiders with the government and maximise value addition.

Third, and very importantly, for doing the first and second, the consulting firm requires a certain type of talent. Talent that is mission-driven and there for the right reasons, but also high calibre. For the consulting firm, a high bar on recruitment, constant impact orientation, investment in this talent, and tight performance management are imperatives to having the right talent. These three things, if done well together by a governance consulting firm, can enable the ‘impact-first’ approach.

An informed reader would have concluded by now that it is not easy to take the ‘impact-first’ approach to governance consulting. It is even more challenging for most incumbents in this space since they come from very different origins. This makes changing goals, mindsets or ways of working that much more difficult. Newer firms focused on governance consulting, even if they face the additional challenge of changing the rules of the game, stand a much better chance of getting the approach right. Of course, the true test of their character will be when they grow!

The author is the Founder-CEO of Samagra, a mission-driven firm that is trying to practise the ‘impact-first’ approach to governance consulting. Views are personal.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

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