Four years on from the bonfire of the quangos, non-elected consultants are still playing a significant role within government, says Prof Helen Gunter.
The focus on leadership as the solution for improving public services continues to dominate reform. And aligned to this is the whole concept of ‘consultocracy’, a term first coined by Hood and Jackson to underline the growing influence of consultants in the public management process.
This has a long history but seemed to intensify under new Labour, and nowhere more so than in education. For instance a particularly good example of consultocracy at work was the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) which was established as a non-departmental public body which aimed to revolutionise the skillset of our headteachers and school leaders and so, in theory, help drive up school standards.
The NCSL would, in time, produce an array of data that claimed that churning out so-called ‘super-heads’ was making a real difference to school performance. However the data was extremely questionable at best, with subsequent research showing that such an emphasis on super-heads overlooked the fact that it was the performance of a whole school team that really mattered.
Little surprise that the NCSL was just one of many quangos to be reformed under the present government. In 2012 it became an executive agency of the Department of Education and last year merged with the Teaching Agency to become the National College for Teaching and Leadership.
Staying with education, examples abound of people and companies that were brought into the last Labour government to advise and deliver on the development of leaders, leading and leadership.
The list includes Pat Collarbone, a former headteacher and Director of the London Leadership Centre; Tony MacKay from the Melbourne-based Centre for Strategic Education; and Sir Michael Barber who served as chief advisor to the Education Secretary on school standards during Tony Blair’s first term. All three became influential educational voices who were powerful in government and who illuminated the swapping over of roles between private and public.
But does it matter that consultants have such power? Does it undermine the whole political process and particularly the role of the civil service? And how can such individuals establish such legitimacy?
My recent work with David Hall, Colin Mills and Joanna Bragg, funded by the British Academy, has been seeking to address some of these probing questions and to investigate further the extent to which consultants still play a role in the creation of public policy.
What we discovered is that today there are still a whole raft of people with different backgrounds working as consultants, with the numbers if anything on the rise. Rather ironically, many of these consultants used to be employed by local authorities and have since set themselves up as private consultants after being made redundant as part of the rolling back of the state and outsourcing of public services.
At the heart of this debate is knowledge. What knowledge do people in government draw on – and why? If you’re sitting in Whitehall, then just whose books and articles do you read? Who do you invite in for a coffee and chat? Where do you turn to for support? Whose ideas do you trust and find convincing?
Some argue that the whole job of government is to make things legible and understandable for the electorate, and this is where consultants have an invaluable role to play in terms of enabling the simplification of difficult concepts. Consultants can package and repackage ideas, strategies and language as recommendations for good practice. They can act as important conduits between the public and private sectors as they understand how both sides work.
Likewise some will say that ultimately how public services are delivered is of secondary importance to the actual standard of service. If the standard is higher because of what consultants bring to the party, then that it is ultimately for the benefit of the taxpayer. However the taxpayer cannot hold consultants to account. They cannot use the ballot box to impact on or curtail their influence.
Next time you listen to a minister speak about education ask yourself: where is their research evidence? Who has provided this for them? In whose interests is the plan for? And, where are the silences? Such silences can be very loud.
The reverse side of the consultancy coin is the denunciation of researchers and of those professionals who have knowledge which interrupts and suggests alternative ways in which reform might develop.
If you take education, researchers may ‘problem pose’ rather than sell and tell neat and tidy solutions. We tend to point out that any strategy for improving standards needs to be linked to the wider social, economic, cultural and political context in which learners and schools are located within.