Consultants have been in a “very green paddock for a long while”, says government’s major projects supremo

Consultants will need to get used to taking a more subordinate role on major government projects, receiving less project management work in the future, the government’s major projects supremo has said.

David Pitchford, executive director of the Major Projects Authority, who is leading the creation of a £408bn portfolio of government projects, including construction, said that consultancy companies have been in “a very green paddock for a long while” and this was now set to change, with the government assuming a stronger leadership role.

The comments came as the government launched a £6.7m tie up with Oxford University’s Said Business School to train senior civil servants to lead major projects effectively earlier this week.

He said this would mean in future Whitehall, rather than consultants, take the lead on major government schemes and this would “naturally” mean consultants “won’t get as much project management work” in the future.

He said: “[Consultants’] piece will be they’ll be involved in helping the project deliver, but in a less fundamental way than being made leader of the project team.

“What’s happened here over the last 25 years is the leadership of projects, the capability has been outsourced largely. The fundamental problem of outsourcing is that it has led to a spiral where you do not have the leadership within Whitehall to run these projects, so you go out to buy it from a consultancy base.

“And then the outcome is the consultant comes in, leads the project largely in the area they want to lead it in, using the products they want to use, and then the problem becomes of what gets delivered by whom and what happens then… and largely what’s happened is that the consultants walked away with the knowledge of how to do the project, and the money that’s been paid for it, leaving the government without either.”

Pitchford said he could not give a figure of how much the government would reduce its spend on consultants, but said: “I can tell you it’ll be significant”.

However, he said the government would still use consultants in an advisory capacity. “We will need still to use consultants for what they should have been used for, which is to give point of time expert advice, but we won’t be using them to lead or manage the programmes themselves.”

Speaking alongside Pitchford, Sir Bob Kerslake, the new head of the civil service, added: “I think the consultancies have recognised that the day is gone when government would simply hand over big projects to them for delivery, so they have to adapt their offer to us”.

Paul Morrell, the government’s chief construction adviser, told Building the move did not mean there was a “blanket presumption against the use of consultants”, rather it was about strengthening project leadership within government.

“Every analysis of what makes a successful project also points to the importance of strong client leadership. This calls for strategic oversight, direction, governance and accountability - the very business of being a client, and that cannot be delegated.

“That is what this Leadership Academy is about, and I think it is a terrific response to the plea of the industry for Government to build stronger client skills.

“Everyone in the industry should have picked up the message that government, as a major client, is looking for a more integrated proposition focused on customer value.”

John Hicks, Davis Langdon head of government, said he thought the move was a “very good idea”. “If government is a better informed client the better it will be for driving true costs from the industry.”

“I think it’s a longer term project it’s not going to solve the school building programme for this year, but when you put it against the government infrastructure plan that’s long term too.”