Millions or billions? Ministers clash over Flemish consultancy expenditure

Millions or billions? Ministers clash over Flemish consultancy expenditure
Flemish Ministers for Employment, Economy, Social Economy and agriculture Jo Brouns upper left), Domestic Policy and Coexistence Bart Somers (bottom left), for Welfare Hilde Crevits (middle), for Education, Animal Welfare and Sports Ben Weyts (upper right) and Flemish Minister President Jan Jambon. Credit: Belga/James Arthur Gekiere

Vice-Minister-President of Flanders Hilde Crevits revealed on Tuesday that the regional government has already spent €1.5 billion on external consultants since its election, De Tijd reports. But her initial figure has been contested by Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon.

The contested sum spent came after Crevits faced committee questioning on Tuesday about consultancy contracts that her department awarded to a company called “WhoCares?” and contradicts the frequent claim made by Flemish ministers that their government is more cost-efficient than other Belgian administrations.

The contract caused a significant stir after the media revealed that a former minister had worked for the company advising the department Crevits was once responsible for. In an attempt to show that her own department did not spend exaggerated sums on consultants, she revealed that the total spend on consultants across the Flemish government is €1.5 billion since 2019.

However Jambon countered, insisting that the Flemish community had spent only €640 on consultancy assignments. Whilst the figure given by Crevits was followed by a slew of criticism, Jambon said the figures were premature and incorrect.

"No one spends money on consultancy for the sake of it. It's a question of efficiency. The amount is perfectly defensible for a government whose budget is on the way to being balanced," the Minister-President said.

Several parties have called for an audit by the Court of Auditors.

Better than the rest?

Of the total revealed by Crevits, €40 million went to the “Big Four” consultancy companies: Deloitte, KPMG, Ernst & Young, and PWC. Another €860 million went to IT consultancy and the rest went to payments to other IT professionals, architects, engineers, environmental impact assessment contractors, and others.

Crevit’s own Welfare, Health, and Family department spent €115.6 million on consultants, of which €2.5 million went towards the Big Four. The Minister said that, in contrast to others, her department had spent relatively little on outside assistance.

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“The past 25 years, we have indeed opted for a leaner government,” Crevits said. “We consciously chose to buy in expertise on a project basis, rather than broadly develop and maintain expertise in the civil service. It’s really important that we debate this widely to decide whether those were good choices.”

While Flanders relies on external help, both the Federal Government and Belgium’s French-speaking authorities rely on a large civil service. This is often criticised for being bloated and bureaucratic, but the high spending on consultancy may challenge this view.

The cost of government

Flemish MP Jeremie Vaneeckhout has denounced the practice of issuing contracts to consultants for individual projects, instead saying that procurement contracts should be first audited by the relevant authorities. This would allow the Flemish Parliament to see whether government contracts could have been executed better.

Already costly, the price of consultancy has only increased in recent years, especially for the Welfare Department. Crevits blames this increase on a series of crises, including Covid-19 (€5 million in consultancy), the reception crisis, the Ukrainian refugee crisis, monkeypox, and PFAS consultations.

It is as of yet unknown how much other departments of the Flemish government spent on consultants. Jambon's own cabinet is expected to clarify the government expenditure in the coming days.

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