Hornbill Unleashed

October 6, 2013

Buying into the consultancy fad

Eric Loo

I was lost looking for the street art in Georgetown a fortnight ago. What were two-way streets are now one-way. Multistorey complexes now stand where once were landmarks in the 60s when I was a student of St Xavier’s Institution.

Few of the students spilling into the streets that afternoon could understand my query in English. Bahasa was fine. The Christian Brothers who ran the top school in Penang – and made us proud to be a Xavierian – would be shocked with the students’ profile today in their sloppy uniforms and broken English.

The sorry state of my alma mater represents all that have gone wrong with the public education system.

azlanThe problems are: (a) the questionable quality of teachers; the plethora of A’s granted to SPM students, which have consequently lowered the national examination standards and created a false sense of academic excellence; (b) the lack of political will in reforming the system to be more global in its outlook and opening the bumiputera colleges (such as the Mara Junior Science College) and universities (such as UiTM) to non-Malays; (c) the politicisation of education and the school funding system; and (d) the inevitable ideological clash between national and vernacular schools, with each community obsessed with protecting their respective ethnic, language and cultural ‘purity’.

Malaysians are aware of these fundamental problems. Much have been written about the subject by parentsacademics,commentators and politicians.

My commentary, however, is less about what’s wrong with our education system,  but rather the RM20 million of taxpayers’ money paid by the Education Ministry to external consultants to prepare a National Education Blueprint while schools in the rural areas urgently need infrastructure support, and where the cracks in our education system are evident to parents and their college-going kids.

NONEOng Kian Ming (DAP Serdang,right) rightly confronted this issue of accountability and transparency in the Dewan Rakyat (The Malay Mail, Sept 24). “Why appoint a management consultant, McKinsey and Co, when we have education specialists from our universities to research and prepare the blueprint?” Why, indeed.

To which the Deputy PM and Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin answered (as reported in The Sun, Sept 26), “We are using the services of international experts who will go down to each state, do open days and so on within a period of two years. It’s not an easy task.”

Can paying “international experts” millions of taxpayers’ money to “go down to each state, do open days within a period of two years” ever be justified when the blueprint could easily be done, and done better, by local education specialists with local knowledge and cultural insights?

Show fiscal justification

The government should show a fiscal justification for hiring a consultant firm to prepare the blueprint. The preliminary report in 2012, according to observers, is short on adding new insights to an old problem.

The multi-million dollar deal should ring alarm bells. How significantly different or recycled are the contents and policy vision in the current blueprint from the one launched in 2006? Have the consultants delivered real value for money? What does RM20 million pay for in real terms?

Who from the Education Ministry have managed the consultant? Who audits the payments? How did the Ministry keep the consultants accountable? And the usual suspect questions: Who is the middleman in negotiating the fees? Who gets a cut? Looks like a job for the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).

Granted that the right consultant appointed for the right project could arguably justify the incredibly high fees. But I’m curious as to how the ministry came to appoint the ‘right consultant’ for the job. I doubt if we’d read any added value or new insights to the problems that we, the people, had known all these decades.

Governments are prone to waste taxpayers’ money in commissioning consultants to ‘solve’ a problem when what usually emerges is another glossy report that is light in insight, heavy in buzzwords (for example, reforms in 11 shifts and three waves in a 13-year roadmap) and impressive in its presentation. Consultancy reports are usually heavy on qualitative description but which on closer scrutiny provide little objective data.

Government agencies are inclined to justify the cost by treating the qualitative reports as ‘empirical data’. (Note that the standard operating procedure of consultants is to only provide the observable ‘facts’, while the implementation is the responsibilities of the client, in our case, the Education Ministry.) And concrete returns from investing millions of ringgit in external consultancies are generally not well-established.

Consultants usually bill their clients by time and usage of materials. The more indecisive the client, which government bureaucracies usually are, the longer the time taken to meet and brainstorm, the higher the cost in consultancy fees.

Consultants also tend to couch their basic research methodology – usually customer surveys by phone, online questionnaire, or in some cases door-knocks, complemented by case studies, town hall meetings and focus groups – in esoteric jargon. Unfortunately for Malaysian taxpayers, external consultants dressed in impeccable suits and presenting their descriptive findings in snazzy powerpoint slides can easily impress our bureaucrats.

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