An army of Whitehall consultants is not a substitute for democracy Beware the new fixers sitting on fence that separates public and private

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The Independent Online
HERE ARE two stories from the frontier that divides public service from private interest. Like the Berlin Wall, it is easier to cross than it once was.

Dr Janet Thompson runs the Home Office forensic science division. She intends to work in her spare time in industry. The doctor is at the centre of the controversy about DNA fingerprinting - is it an invaluable aid for detectives? Or is it a pseudo-science which may put the innocent in jail? Few would have noticed if she had tried to improve her grasp of the difficulties in matching genetic samples by gaining work experience at a biotech-nology company. But Dr Thompson is not going to the commercial world of forensic research. Instead, as Michael Howard revealed in an unnoticed parliamentary answer, she will become an unpaid non-executive director of KPMG, the management consultants.

This firm and its many rivals together receive hundreds of millions of pounds of public money each year. These are the fees paid for the dilemma analysts, rainmakers and brainstormers to - in the jargon - co-ordinate the goals of systems thinking in Whitehall. In other words, they tell ministers what they want to hear: privatise and cut.

Should we find it unsettling that a senior civil servant will involve herself with a "profession" which earns about pounds 3.5m a year from the Home Office? Does it matter that Dr Thompson lives in Oxford with the head of the Home Office's probation unit which on 24 January awarded a contract to KPMG?

The Home Office is not perturbed. But an uneasy thought nags away. It could not have been like this 20 or even 10 years ago. The current orthodoxy has it that only businessmen can be trusted to run anything, from NHS trusts to schools. Dr Thompson's chance to mingle with the stormers and downsizers is good for her and good for the country, says the Home Office. Her personal relationships are her concern. There is no risk of a conflict of interest. Quite the reverse. Dr Thompson was gaining invaluable experience and embarking on "a senior management challenge".

The second story involves a woman waiting to serve the next government. She works in another firm of consultants. She is admired by her colleagues for her energy and openness (though she does not wish to be named), and is close to the Labour Party leadership. It is inconceivable that a Blair administration would not use her talents.

There seems to be a mismatch here. Aren't consultants naturally Thatcherite, I asked? She leapt to the defence of her new colleagues.

"Oh no, lots are very new Labour. Very entrepreneurial. Very can-do. They are very well paid ... but expect to work very hard ... with very good systems. They thrive on change in an overheated culture ... the goal is managing it so they're not frightened of a change of government."

If Labour gets in, she could be a civil servant, a special adviser, a member of a think-tank, a lobbyist, a quangocrat or a management consultant; she could move from one job to another, or, like Dr Thompson, have two at once.

The professional barriers are rotting. The old civil service may have been hobbled by secrecy and complacency, but at its best it taught integrity and an ethical code to entrants. Today, many policy makers never stay in one place long enough to pick up those values which are fostered by institutional continuity. You can welcome the new world of mobility and opportunity (not least the opportunity to make contacts that can lead to better jobs) in British government. But it is opportunity for a rootless few. The old vices remain. In the past the Official Secrets Act stopped democratic scrutiny; now awkward questions are met with the response that any answer would breach commercial confidence.

The temporary homes for flitting policy makers are important centres of power. The Thatcher years saw an eruption of management consultants. In 1981, when the small business was regarded with a mixture of incomprehension and derision, the major consultancy firms got pounds 7m worth of work from government. In 1990, when all groups and institutions which weren't Conservative faced attack, they took pounds 209m for helping push through the assaults. They have advised on the most important issues of public life: splitting up the health service, dealing with refugees and cutting benefits; as well as technical problems such as which computer system to install.

Firms of political lobbyists, whose work so disturbed Lord Nolan's committee on standards in public life, did not exist before the 1970s. Today the influence peddlers in Ian Greer Associates, Westminster Strategy and the other big players have an annual estimated fee income of between pounds 20m and pounds 25m. Then there are 73,000 quango jobs ministers have in their gift, controlling basic services such as health, public housing and training. Beyond lie the think-tanks, political researchers, personal advisers, party strategy units filled with smart men and women whose composure is only shaken when the mobile phone battery runs low. Their lives are characterised by movement between spheres which would once have been rigorously separated.

Take Peter Gummer (brother of John Selwyn). He was head of the Arts Council's Lottery Board, which gave pounds 55m of lottery money to the Royal Opera and then moved to become chairman of the opera house his committee had generously subsidised. Norman Blackwell was in the Downing Street policy unit in the 1980s, moved to the management consultant McKinsey & Co, which sold its services to government and last year was made John Major's chief policy adviser. Is he a public servant or a businessman?

A new book attempts to pin down these fuzzy characters. The Fixers by Trevor Smith and Alison Young has received high praise. Conservative commentators have focused on its portraits of dead deal-makers. There is the portly figure of Lord Goodman sliding around London of the 1960s, fixing problems for Harold Wilson and Edward Heath. And there's Lord Franks throwing a bucket of whitewash over the mistakes that led to the Falklands War.

Where are the Lord Goodmans whom Major needs to solve the mad cow crisis, asked the Times, ignoring the authors' perceptive answer that they are all around us. The consultants, lobbyists, quangocrats, think-tank staff are "coalescing into a new nomenklatura", say Smith and Young. They are plugged into networks which produce a stream of deals and jobs.

There was only one Goodman and his services were called upon during rare crises. But he has spawned thousands of successors who work flat-out, full-time. The millions they earn suggest that the centralised British state is facing crises so persistent that it requires an army of fixers on permanent duty.

But the fixers can't fix it. A Downing Street review discovered that in 1992, they had received pounds 500m of public money for work that generated just pounds 10m of savings. As an unusually honest management consultant might put it: management consultancy is a lame duck industry propped up by huge public subsidies.

In 1972, Kenneth Tynan described Lord Goodman as a man who had for a decade wielded more power than anyone except the prime minister. "When it actually seems as if real democracy might be about to exert some genuine influence on the nation's life, the ruling class produces an antibody to counter it. The antibody in our time is Lord Goodman."

In our time it is consultancy nomenklatura. The one fix that has not been tried is open government and devolved power. Or real democracy.

Neal Ascherson is away.