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Seeking Advice

August 14, 2009

“Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.” — Erica Jong

Contractors, consultants, technical advisers, and policy analysts have become increasingly integrated into government operations at every level.  As a testimony both to the growing reliance upon and increasing influence of these actors in political and policy decisions, some critics have cynically referred to the public service consulting industry as the fourth branch of government.

Despite growing  pressure on municipal and state budgets resulting from the fiscal crisis and worldwide economic downturn government agencies are still producing requests for proposals and tendering contracts to companies and individuals to provide advice and deliver services essential to the normal functioning of government and the communities they serve.  Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the opportunity to do this work.  But lately I have seen a couple of troubling signs that this is not a healthy way to do business for either party to the bargain.

Two issues in particular concern me.  First, the nature of much of the work being sent out for contract is unusually routine almost to the point of being core business for the agencies or entities tendering it.  Second, those companies and individuals submitting tenders for this work are in many cases, like me, former government employees themselves.  In other words, we often did the same work for a government agency.  In most cases, we did this work much more cheaply, and in almost every case we were more directly accountable and certainly more directly concerned with the outcome due to our connections to the communities we served.

In a significant proportion of the cases I’ve been looking at lately, the offering agency seems not only to have decided what they want and how, when, and to whom they want it delivered but also how they want it done.  From where I sit, the only thing left then is the actual doing.  And if that does not result in significant savings or improved accountability, neither of which seems to be the case in many instances, I have to wonder what the benefit to anyone really is.

I have avoided posing this in the form of a question for a reason.  I suspect two things are wrong here.  One is that government agencies have lost a good deal of the capacity they once had to actually do things, even things closely associated with their core services.   And the second is that the government officials who do most of the contracting out find the process more personally empowering and professionally rewarding than delivering services or dealing directly with the public themselves, especially when a project involves a complex or contentious issue.

Both of these concerns raise serious questions about the health of our democracy and the strength of the public service ethos.  As a contractor, but more importantly as a citizen, I relish the opportunity to do work that supports both of these institutions.

Government and its agents in the public service owe citizens an opportunity both to scrutinize and influence decisions and hold those responsible for taking and implementing them accountable for their quality.  Contracts may provide an accountability mechanism, but hardly an ideal one as it remains both below citizens’ radar screens and beyond their reach.  If citizens had a say on contracting, or better yet if they were asked to weigh in on the practice, I suspect they would first express surprise at being asked and then, just as quickly, they would express dismay that it took so long for anyone to think to ask them what they thought.

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