It's all good. Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.
Yes, it's nice to be back. Professor Clarke and I, as you mentioned, were here in November as part of the committee's study on ArriveCAN. I think it's safe to say that, when we started this research last spring, we didn't expect it to attract this level of attention.
Last year, Professor Clarke and I worked together on a research project on federal government contract spending. For today's discussion on this, there are two angles that stand out. The first, on a micro level, goes to transparency and data quality in government contract disclosures. The second, on a macro level, is what this means for public sector capacity and patterns of dependency on large consulting firms.
In terms of transparency and data quality, the main theme is that it's hard to understand, on a government-wide scale, where money is being spent and which vendors are the most prominent. Our research focused on the government's proactive disclosure of contracts dataset, which is all publicly available open data.
It's a very valuable dataset, but there are a few reasons why it's hard to interpret at a glance. The names of vendors aren't consistent, and there aren't any business numbers or other unique identifiers. Amendments to contracts aren't always associated consistently with their original contracts. For multi-year contracts, there isn't any data on how much money is spent per year. For many of the contract entries, there aren't descriptions that would allow us to clearly associate the contract with a specific project or initiative, or to easily differentiate different kinds of professional services work.
Our research team spent several months cleaning and analyzing this data, and we published our results and methodology online at govcanadacontracts.ca.
There are two things to note—and this is more for the researchers in the room. If you're looking at the numbers on the website, for government-wide totals, you can use the “All departments and agencies” tab near the top of the page. If you're comparing numbers from year to year, I'd recommend using inflation-adjusted totals. You can find those in the associated CSV files when you click the “View source data” link below each table.
Even after the data cleaning we did, it's hard to tell, from the publicly available data, what a given contract was for. That's especially true for management consulting firms, which provide a very wide range of services to government departments. In the data, a contract might simply be described as “management consulting”. That could be strategic advice work, IT implementation or subcontracting a different, more specialized vendor. It's hard to tell what work was involved, let alone how successfully the project turned out.
There's a lot that other countries have done to improve the quality of their public contract disclosures. The biggest would be adopting the open contracting data standard, which lets the public follow spending in detail, from initial RFPs all the way to the conclusion of the contract.
That's the micro level.
At the macro level, a lot of this is a reflection of public service capacity—or a perceived lack of it—and the ways management consulting firms fill that gap. Looking at the data year by year, what stood out, very early on, was how significantly spending on management consulting firms has increased over time. Management consulting firms feature prominently in both the professional services and information technology categories of our analysis.
Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Accenture are the largest of these by total dollars spent. In the 2021-22 fiscal year, these companies received an estimated $172 million, $115 million and $94 million, respectively. That's much more per year than four or five years ago, which you can see from the data tables on the website.
From the descriptions available, many contracts with these firms focused on IT or IT-adjacent work. That could be implementing a large IT or service delivery project, process automation, digital transformation advice, project oversight and so on.
The large growth in spending on these firms, in many cases, is the result of an increased recognition that departments have fallen behind in IT capacity compared with public and political expectations. Instead of being able to build capacity in-house, they have expanded the amount of work done externally by management consultants and large IT firms.
There are two tendencies you can observe from this.
The first is that management consulting firms will often be hired to prepare project management and procurement plans for major projects. Even if the same firms aren't bidding on the subsequent projects, you can reasonably assume that it gives them detailed insights into how departments assess and evaluate bids.
The second is that—especially for large IT projects—one management consulting firm might be hired to oversee the work of another management consulting firm or major IT firm, such as IBM or CGI. That can lead to a set of dynamics in which each firm isn't necessarily motivated to hold the other to account, given that their positions will likely be reversed on other, future projects.
Looking at the literature, we see a worldwide trend of management consulting firms dramatically expanding their IT implementation divisions, given how profitable this work is. Their existing relationships through audit and strategic advice work give them a competitive advantage in winning IT and digital services contracts.
This reliance on management consultants becomes a self-reinforcing cycle—there are a few reasons why that happens—and the capacity of the public service degrades over time, as a result. Other countries are having important conversations about state capacity or the effectiveness of their public institutions, often in response to similar situations.
In my experience, departments depending heavily on management consultants is a reflection of structural challenges within the public service, such as a lack of effective feedback loops, a rigid adherence to existing processes and a lack of in-house technical capacity and expertise.
I hope this can spark more discussions on public service reform and improving how we work. It's a conversation that's really worth having.
I'll leave it to Professor Clarke—once she arrives, hopefully—to discuss some of these trends in more detail.
Thank you for having me here. I'm happy to answer your questions.