Last March, a Senate commission of inquiry threw a stone into the pond by denouncing the influence deemed sprawling by consulting firms within the state, with a surge in spending in recent years. Matthieu Courtecuisse, president of Syntec Conseil, the trade union, and CEO of Sia Partners, in debate with Prune Helfter-Noah, co-spokesperson for the collective Nos Services publics, which brings together civil servants from all sectors public.
Consulting spending in ministries more than doubled between 2018 and 2021, to almost 900 million euros. With those in public establishments, the billion is crossed. What do you think ?
Matthieu Courtecuisse : Let’s try to be precise. Half of this figure adds up services in strategy and organization consulting and half in IT. It does not surprise us because it corroborates our own analyses. Typically, consultancy spending tends to drop at the end of the terms of office of Presidents of the Republic pending new elections. This time, the health crisis has obviously turned everything upside down, the administrations having had to be helped in an exceptional way.
However, I have one regret: the Senate commission, before which I was auditioned, was satisfied with the contracts signed with the State and did not want to study the services provided to town halls, departments or regions. It is true that the Senate represents the local authorities…
Prune Helfter-Noah : I want to say: finally figures! Last year, our collective, which brings together civil servants from all walks of life to defend our administrations, published a study on the outsourcing of activities from the public sphere to the private sector. Impossible to get precise amounts at the time. Moreover, the Senate commission of inquiry had to investigate: no State service knows the overall cost of consulting purchases.
What does this increase in spending, which all the same began well before the Covid, reflect? ?
Prune Helfter-Noah : This phenomenon is parallel to the desire to reduce the wage bill in the ministries, which gained momentum under Nicolas Sarkozy with the RGPP (general revision of public policies). But as the missions of civil servants do not change, a palliative must be found. Moreover, public accounting rules take away all latitude. Since the LOLF law (organic law relating to finance laws) put in place in 2006, each ministry has an employment ceiling which prohibits it from recruiting, according to its needs, additional agents, even on fixed-term contracts. On the other hand, no problem to call on a firm.
Matthieu Courtecuisse : The consultants involved all come from top schools. Their task could be similar to that of senior civil servants. I am not certain that the number of the latter has frankly decreased. On the other hand, it is true that the administration lacks project managers and operational managers. Perhaps instead of remaining in their inspection bodies, senior civil servants should be redeployed more to executive missions.
Prune Helfter-Noah : What I see above all is that the firms respond to specifications, asking them to be able to act for less and with fewer people. We are pooling services, cutting staff, reducing costs, in the name of an essential transformation. Then the firms will again be asked to perform the tasks that can no longer be fulfilled internally.
Matthieu Courtecuisse : You caricature our interventions: only 30% of missions in the public sector are intended to affect the efficiency of organisations. The rest is to design and develop new services.
Is this appeal to cabinets still really justified?
Matthieu Courtecuisse : It is often a question of responding to expertise which the State does not have and which it needs quickly but punctually. Let me give you a concrete example: during the health crisis, it was necessary to urgently set up complex logistical plans to transport millions of doses of vaccines while respecting the cold chain. The Ministry of Health obviously had no specialists in this area. It made sense to bring in outside experts. If, unfortunately, the health crisis were to continue, it would probably be necessary to internalize cold logistics professionals in the administration.
Prune Helfter-Noah : I do not dispute the interest of calling on consultants, for specific needs. But this must be case by case and not systematic. The reality is that we are trying to favor variable costs over fixed costs. And so much the worse for the general interest and the constraints specific to the public sector. By dint of wanting to concentrate the administration on its core business – which no one really defines anyway – we end up losing essential skills, as in digital for example, where we are sorely lacking in IT specialists.
Moreover, this leads to another difficulty: we are hard pressed to judge or even correct the “deliverables” cabinets, in case of problems. Let us remember ten years ago the disaster of the military payroll software Louvois, which never worked.
Matthieu Courtecuisse : On this ground, I am entirely with you: outsourcing without internal technical expertise to control is guaranteed disaster. But this lack of skills above all raises the question of the State’s ability to offer attractive and remunerative careers, especially in shortage occupations. Even in the private sector, it is difficult to find developers or cybersecurity pros.
What about the relevance of the work performed?
Prune Helfter-Noah : The Senate commission shows that there is not a good use of public money. Consultants charge a high price for their day’s work! However, their services are of unequal quality, without this being reproached to them. Some of the missions mentioned are even surreal. What is the point of spending nearly 500,000 euros to obtain a McKinsey study on the teaching profession, the essence of which boils down to a vast compilation of public data?
No one has had the idea of questioning teachers on a theme that they master all the same more than a consultant! As if there was a feeling, perhaps not of contempt, but of mistrust towards civil servants, in particular those who must apply what the cabinets will recommend. In short, “you are not competent, we will explain to you how to do it”.
Matthieu Courtecuisse : In all firms, senior partners have years of experience in their field of activity and their teams also specialize. At Sia Partners, for example, the public sector activity is made up of around thirty consultants who do just that and know how to adapt. A vision outside his profession may be relevant. In terms of tax evasion, for example, Bercy has learned a lot by taking up current practices among insurance companies. As for the work rendered, it is up to the client to judge. He can revoke us at any time.
Since you are referring to the Senate report, it is indicated that, out of a sample of 78 missions carried out between 2018 and 2021, 55 were rated 4 and 5 out of 5, therefore ranging from “very satisfactory” to “excellent”. There must still be a reason. Finally, on the rates charged, 1,500 euros per day on average, two clarifications: it is the billing of the firm, not what the consultant earns, and it is of the order of -30% to -70% compared to private assignments.
The Senate inquiry committee has made several proposals to better regulate the use of consultants, including increased control of the HATVP (High Authority for Transparency in Public Life). What do you think ?
Matthieu Courtecuisse : First, let’s avoid any conspiracy. The cabinets do not bring rain and shine. Public procurement tenders are highly regulated. In addition, the supposed porosity between public leaders and consultants is low: less than 1% of the staff of the firms come from the public service. And if sometimes, as we have been accused of, we have ministry email addresses, it is not to conceal ourselves but to prevent confidential data from going outside.
From there, anything that can contribute to transparency is fine with us. We therefore support the prohibition of free assignments that certain firms may carry out, except in the context of declared sponsorship.
Prune Helfter-Noah : Better monitoring of benefits and a fight against conflicts of interest will be welcome. But that will not solve the basic problem which is structural. Just look at the circular issued urgently by the government last January to try to put out the fire. It is asked to reduce spending by only 15% in 2022. But this is still 150% more than in 2018!
A final word on the McKinsey “case”. The American consulting giant, whose head of the public sector division is close to Emmanuel Macron, is accused of not paying corporate tax in France.
Matthieu Courtecuisse : I cannot comment on the accusations of the commission of inquiry. But just one point: the French subsidiary of McKinsey was charged fees by its parent company, which reduced its profits accordingly. This is called transfer pricing and it is regulated. I practice it myself with my foreign subsidiaries, which increases the taxable profit in France.
Prune Helfter-Noah : No comment from my side…
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