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John Oughton, the out-going head of the Office of Government Commerce, had his knuckles soundly rapped by the Public Accounts Committee at a hearing on Tuesday this week.

Oughton came under fire for failing to curb central government's huge bill for external consultants, as revealed in a report (pdf) from the National Audit Office last December.

In the last three years, the amount of public money going to big firms like PriceWaterhouseCoopers, has risen by a third to £2.8bn annually.

The vast majority of that cash is being paid to just ten large firms. The OGC says there are plans afoot to force departments to consider a much wider list of consultants, including many smaller agencies.

Conservative MP Richard Bacon went so far as to accuse the senior civil servant of failing to achieve anything in the last 13 years. He noted that 13 years ago, Oughton had put together a report for the Cabinet Office in which he decried the government's over reliance on external consultants, and made recommendations for best practice that could reduce that dependency.

He told Oughton: "You must be extremely frustrated....you don't figure out whether you can use your own staff properly, you don't procure properly, you don't project manage properly, and then there's not a proper project review. But you were saying all that years ago."

Oughton argues that his department has not had the power to enforce its recommendations on best practice, but that with the new powers it has (as laid out in the Treasury report Transforming Government Procurement), it will do so in future.

According to the NAO report on which Oughton was being quizzed, not only is the amount of money spent on consultants increasing, nobody knows for sure what the consultants are actually doing. The report states: "Departments rarely collect any information on what has been achieved."

Iain Wright, Labour MP for Hartlepool, called the situation "a disgrace", and asked Oughton what plans the OGC has for weaning the civil service off consultants.

"I worry about that," Oughton replied. "If we are employing external support advisors, or whatever title you want to give them, it is important that we get both the job they do and the time, but the skills rub off on our own staff, I absolutely agree with you about that."

He offered no explanation as to why any major consultancy would allow their skills and expertise to "rub off" to such an extent that they would not be hired again.

Oughton also had to concede that it is unacceptable that many government contracts are not put out to competitive tender, and pledged that the OGC would stop being "polite" about making sure departments followed best practice guidelines on this, and other issues.

Wright also pressed Oughton on the rules governing the jobs senior civil service staff take once they leave government employ. He asked for a list of those who have move from the civil service to take up senior positions at consultancy firms, and of those who leave consultancies to join the civil service.

Although no list is held centrally, Oughton said he'd get the information. We'll keep you posted. ®

For the truly dedicated, a recording of the hearing can be found here.

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