When Woolwich councillors this week voted to spend more than $89,000 to hire a consultant for the Breslau servicing study they did so with no debate or hesitation. Such expenditures, cumulatively amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, have become a matter of course.
In the township’s case, the rationale for such hires is that the planning and engineering staffs lack the manpower to review and oversee every project. Sometimes staff lacks a certain expertise deemed essential to the process.
Governments of all stripes, however, are more readily turning to consultants, often to the detriment of coffers and, more alarmingly, to the notion of accountability.
You can see government staffs’ attraction to the idea: the work is offloaded and so too is the liability if something goes wrong, increasingly likely as the size of a particular project grows.
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More disturbing is the use of consultants, and sometimes special committees, to third-party decisions, particularly lucrative pay raises and job reclassifications, often involving subjective comparisons with other municipalities.
That’s the kind of thing that came back to bite councillors’ behinds in Windsor, for instance, where recently a bitter dispute broke out when the city asked its unionized workers to take a four-year wage freeze and reduced benefits for new hires; just a year earlier, council approved a consultant’s report calling for some 400 managers and non-union staff members to receive significant pay increases ranging up to 15 per cent, and averaging 4.6 per cent. That hike was on top of the three per cent non-union employees received in conjunction with raises given to unionized workers.
Woolwich has made similar adjustments in recent years. An attempt by the City of Waterloo to do likewise this year met with massive opposition because of the economic conditions, though residents of all municipalities should resist such measures on principle. Likewise, politicians and bureaucrats should be blocked from employing such processes rife with conflict.
The problem is endemic, from the federal government on down. In their first two years after forming a government in 2006, the Conservatives issued $917 million in contracts to consultants, an increase of 42 per cent over the $534 million in such contracts issued by the Liberal government in the two years prior.
Consultants were hired for varied roles, from overseeing the student loan program to promoting the stripping of public assets for private gain.
In this case, critics have attached an ideological motive to go along with some of the other dubious claims for the hiring of consultants: the Conservatives are said to want to diminish the public service in favour of private profit.
In such instances, the use of consultants can become a form of outsourcing, though typically causing less friction with professional staff than equivalent measures taken with unionized staff – hiring a consultant to do a study appears much less invasive than axing the cleaning staff in favour of a private firm.
As with hiring additional managers and similar employees – we’ve seen staff numbers creep up across the board with local government, even here in Woolwich, though not to the extent seen at the regional level – the use of consultants can help insulate senior bureaucrats from the public and council and the accountability that comes with such scrutiny.
Of course, such steps are often condoned by politicians who are unable or unwilling to make decisions themselves, essentially deferring to outside sources.
There is also reason to question the independence of consultants. Those hired for technical expertise can be seen as impartial, but the waters can get murky with management consultants and hires made to study strategies, program spending and other issues related to finances. As with studies for think tanks or for interest groups – think about the tobacco or gun lobbies, for instance – consultants can be selected and coaxed to say what those who pay them want to hear.
The situation gets worse still when the work of consultants, and their often exorbitant fees, is kept from the public.
Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian has spent years calling for great transparency in cases where the province hires consultants, contractors and other service providers. She spelled that out in her 2005 annual report, reiterating the sentiment ever since.
“The default position should be that financial and all other pertinent information related to a contract will be made publicly available,” says Cavoukian.
In the absence of an immediate reduction in the number of consultants, solid justifications for those who are in fact hired would be an ideal first step in the greater transparency Cavoukian and other critics are demanding.