The cost of counsel: Federal Government spent €125 million on consultants in three years

The cost of counsel: Federal Government spent €125 million on consultants in three years
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Belgium's Federal Government has spent more than a hundred million euros on consultancy fees in just the last three years, raising fears about the harmful impact of the privatisation and outsourcing of government services across the country.

According to an investigation by De Morgen, €124.64 million in public money has been paid to consultancy firms since October 2020, when the Vivaldi coalition government led by current Prime Minister Alexander De Croo (Open VLD) came to power.

The report also found that consultants were called in to provide advice on a wide range of different issues, including the Covid-19 pandemic, cybersecurity and military affairs.

In total, nearly 300 different firms were hired to work on approximately 500 different projects. Deloitte – one of the so-called 'Big Four' international consulting companies – was the largest beneficiary of government contracts (€15.63 million), followed by Belgian tech firms Realdolmen (€12.5 million) and Tobania (€10.1 million).

'A worrying trend'

One expert interviewed by De Morgen said that the exorbitant fees paid to consultancies are a symptom of a broader decline in government officials' belief in the proficiency of their own institutions, as well as a concurrent increase in their confidence in the efficiency of private enterprises.

"For me, this is a story of political distrust in the administration," said Professor of Public Governance and Management at Ghent University, Bram Verschuere. "Consultants may be less critical, powerful or annoying than a strong public service with a lot of knowledge and the ability to contradict a minister... It is also a story that refutes the myth of slim government. One can save on the administration, but the work must be done."

Although Verschuere was careful to emphasise that "consultants have their merits", he also stressed that the systematic outsourcing of key government services is – or should be – a serious cause for concern.

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"The main task of an administration is to make and follow policies," he said. "If you systematically outsource this task to consultants, this is a worrying trend."

Contacted by De Morgen, Deputy Prime Minister Petra de Sutter (Flemish Greens) suggested that government spending on external consultants is an inevitable consequence of the state's failure to attract sufficiently skilled workers.

"Talent is being fought for today," she said. "If you don't fight that battle, you end up with consultants. I have nothing against them, but the government must make sure that it has enough talent."

Speaking in the Flemish Parliament on Thursday, Minister-President of Flanders Jan Jambon (N-VA) – who is currently mired in his own scandal involving the use of paid consultants – vigorously defended the state's outsourcing of government services.

"We have to keep in mind that we do not allow civil service tasks to be replaced by the use of external parties," he said. "But I'm not going along in a kind of communist model where the state has to do everything like the PVDA [the Belgian Workers' Party]."

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