Malcolm Turnbull on the ‘cult of consultants’

James Riley
Editorial Director

The Australian Public Service has been so damaged by and so captive to a “cult of the consultant” that it no longer possessed the skills in-house to perform some functions that should be considered the “core business” of government, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says.

Speaking to InnovationAusCommercial Disco podcast as part of a virtual book tour to promote his political autobiography A Bigger Picture, Mr Turnbull said one of the big challenges facing government has been the hollowing out of in-house public service skills.

Mr Turnbull said he had set up the David Thodey-led APS Review in conjunction with his departmental secretary Martin Parkinson with one of the terms of reference aimed directly at rebuilding inhouse skills within the bureaucracy.

“Regrettably, the enthusiasm for that kind of reform is no longer there,” Mr Turnbull said. “It was a bit of a personal agenda of mine and also shared by Martin [Parkinson].”

“You’ve basically had this ‘cult of the consultant’ to the point where the skills for doing so many things that are really core business are no longer in the public service,” he said.

In a wide-ranging podcast interview with the Commercial Disco, Mr Turnbull covered topics ranging from the epic fail of strategic industry policy within the Five Eyes nations that led to a reliance for mobile technology on a tiny handful of suppliers from either Scandinavia or China, to the looking in hindsight at the National Innovation and Science Agenda, as well as where he now sees opportunities as a private investor in tech startups.

But you get a sense of his fascination as a minister and then Prime Minister that departments and agencies would defer so often to expensive consultants for advice in areas where the public servants themselves should reasonably be considered the experts.

The deskilling is ongoing, he says, and damage is being done.

“It’s worse in some departments more than others, but the consultants who obviously make a fortune are, frankly, doing quite a bit of damage to the public service,” Mr Turnbull said.

“They’re not doing it on purpose, I’m not saying that, but those smart people with those skills and those interests should actually be in the public service,” he said.

“You should only be using consultants to do things that are a little bit exotic, where you need a specialist expertise.”

Rebuilding in-house expertise within the public service would take years of focused effort, he said – probably a decade of work.

On the landmark National Innovation and Science Agenda, he said the quick turnaround in the available venture capital in Australia was its most obvious success. There were others, but in the end he says it was perhaps the energy that went into the delivery of the innovation message that was as effective as some of the programs themselves.

“In some ways, the element of NISA that had the biggest impact was literally just talking about innovation, and talking it up,” he said.

“That bully pulpit of the Prime Ministership, that megaphone, is a very powerful one. And if you’ve got the Prime Minister talking as I used to – a lot – about the importance of innovation, well that encourages boards and Super funds and investors to have a look at what they are doing in the innovation field [themselves].”

That innovation messaging was not universally loved within the Coalition. The general political view at the time was that talking about innovation was a bad idea – because it frightened people.

“The difficulty is that, you know, you can either lie to people – which is obviously not unknown in politics – and tell them that everything [in the future] is going to be the same, or you can be honest and say ‘Look, the world is changing, and regardless of what we do it is still changing, and either we harness those changes and take advantage of them, or they run over the top of us,” he said.

“They are the only choices. We are living in an age of change at a pace and scale never seen before, and of course a lot of it is being accelerated by this pandemic.”

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  1. Penny 4 years ago

    Malcolm, I appreciate your wisdom/ opinions and common sense. May you effect public policy with greater freedom outside the party political structure.
    Best of luck to you, have enjoyed reading your latest book.

  2. Linda 4 years ago

    Turnbull is like many politicians, they show so much promise and fail miserably to deliver anything of value. Of course they believe in themselves, their egos tell you that. It’s just the plebs get in the way of their grand plans. I believe what the world needs are people whose main objective is to be of genuine service to their country. Sadly the good ones don’t stand a chance, they get eaten up as the good people are the very threat elitism wants to rid society of, goodness!

  3. I am confused what is the role of government,to govern, to facilitate? to finance? to socialise losses and privatise profits? to set standards for others to follow or just to be the driver we can blame for crashing a car full of backseat consultants with all care no responsibility.

  4. Adam 4 years ago

    It is not made any easier by the obfuscation of data. This tool allows laypersons to follow the money pretty easily and only uses source Austender Data.

  5. anonymous 4 years ago

    Turnbull’s assertions are wrong about many things, including the supposed Coalition attitude to innovation.

    His claim “The general political view at the time was that talking about innovation was a bad idea – because it frightened people.” completely misses the point of what happened. Turnbull seemed to think that endlessly going blah blah about innovation without bothering to develop, detail and promote specific policy issues was all he had to do.

    The disquiet about his approach was felt far more widely than claimed, largely because the productive sectors quickly grew tired of hearing seemingly endless waffle, instead of real policy that would have made a real difference.

  6. David Havyatt 4 years ago

    Unfortunately for Mr Turnbull, his approach to consultants is quite revealing in his chapter on the NBN.

    On Labor’s NBN he wrote ‘In the wake of Rudd’s latest bold move, there followed the usual conga line of consultants, most notably McKinsey, who undertook an implementation study in May 2010. Remarkably, they concluded the Rudd policy was a terrific idea that augured a rosy future for Australians. Most joyous of all, it forecast that the government could expect a return on its investment to fully cover the cost of funds.’

    Of his own he writes ‘We then commissioned a strategic review of the existing approach to see what could be changed to complete the network sooner and at less cost. The strategic review, which was done by NBN Co assisted by Deloitte, Boston Consulting Group and KordaMentha, recommended a shift to a multi-technology approach.’

    Now the language suggests that the Labor consultant was just telling government what it wanted to hear, but his consultants were honest brokers. That Turnbull has such a view of Labor’s consultant more probably reflects Turnbull’s own interaction with his consultants.

    Meanwhile in all this, the greatest NBN tragedy of all always gets overlooked. The Labor strategy in 2007 with its $4.7 billion offer was to get Telstra to do exactly what Turnbull subsequently sought – to get Telstra to structurally separate and build the new access network in a separate company. That this strategy failed was a consequence of Conroy’s Department invoking the standard Government procurement process for a project that didn’t suit it, and the mania of the just privatised Telstra (I don’t blame just Solomon for this – he was after all hired by a Board…this was the predictable, as I had, first reaction of a newly privatised corporation to think that its shareholders interests were more important than the national interest).

    Also, I note the commentary in Turnbull’s book that he tried to persuade Telstra to structurally separate but that Telstra preferred its deal with Government. That was the opportunity missed by Telstra. The deal should have been accepted – structural separation for agreement to build it all as FTTP.

  7. Mr Turnbull has identified a serious problem with modern public administration. This is my take on the issue…

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