Having listened to David Cameron stating that the Conservatives intend saving money by getting rid of consultants, I felt I had to write to you, as I believe this short-term approach would lead to total disaster. I believe him to be wrong both in principle and in practice, what is required is long-term change in policy. While I am speaking only as an engineer, I do believe that where possible, governments should not be handing out work to consultants but carrying out the work themselves, but to revert to this system will take time, This would also be particularly applicable to the use of computers in the civil service where currently I believe the interest of the supplier is put before the interest of the civil service.
I have worked as a consultant, a contractor, and in government service as a design engineer and a construction engineer, in the civil engineering field. I have designed and constructed marine works, sewage works, waterworks, runways, and tunnels, while working for Belfast Corporation and the civil service, and have been in charge of large workforces handling millions.
On retirement in 81, I left a team of experienced, well-trained engineers in both construction and design, It saddened me later to discover that the civil service, had decided to farm out all design work to contractors. In-house-trained people at any level or position, are a priceless asset. In engineering one starts at the bottom, progresses, gaining experience year-on-year, handling more and more money and controlling more and more people. This is essential, firstly for the engineer to know the quality of the work and the reasons for it, but more importantly he will retain the information, should it be required later if problems occur. His designs will be let to contract, and then the construction supervised, by him or a colleague, examining the quality, the competence of the work and agreeing the payments. The beauty of the in-house system is that accurate information is available in the face of unseen problems, and local knowledge is invaluable. It would seem that Mr Cameron proposes to delete all this. When Departments hand out work to consultant, they are detracting from the training of the very people who will be responsible for supervising and approving the work of the consultants, which includes the preliminary assessments, the designs, the implementation and verifying the payment.. If the in-house engineers have not had sufficient experience, then the government department has either totally to accept what the consultant is offering, or employ staff of the quality of standing and experience to be able to control the contract and oversee the consultants. Some contracts are for millions of pounds, some for a few hundred thousand, and as most contracts contain a contingency sum, placed in the contract precisely because in civil engineering the unexpected can be expected, the man responsible has got to be able to understand the problem and make the right decision, where a tyro would be totally lost.
You will see from what I’ve said above, either you have to lift experience off-the-shelf and this is not easy, is divisive, nor always successful, as the best are always in great demand, or it will take years to sow the seed and reap the harvest, in-house. Small organisations generally have small contracts and so the experience of the engineers is commensurate. Big organisations consequently require people versed in large works. I’m sure that these remarks apply not only to civil engineering, but in all the professions.