Consulting firm in administration: “We have to put an end to the lack of transparency”

Consulting firm in administration: “We have to put an end to the lack of transparency”

It is undoubtedly the parliamentary text with the greatest consensus at the moment. Adopted unanimously in committee last week the invoice Increasing the use of consulting firms will be examined in the Senate this Tuesday, October 18th, in the first reading and should benefit from broad support on the right and left. It is also borne by two senators opposed on paper: Éliane Assassi (CRCE with a communist majority) and Arnaud Bazin (LR).

The text is based on the work of the commission of inquiry about the links between these private companies and the public authorities that have created a “sprawling and opaque phenomenon” and “a state expropriation”. It consists of 19 articles with four objectives: to eliminate opacity, to better regulate the use of consulting firms, to strengthen the ethical obligations of consultants and to better protect government data. In particular, the proposed law will oblige consultancies to submit a declaration of interests under the control of the High Authority for the Transparency of Public Life (HATVP). The latter would have increased the investigative possibilities and could impose fines and publish their sanctions.

The text also stipulates that the government will submit a report on the use of advisory services to Parliament “on the first Tuesday in October each year”. Asked this Tuesday Public Senate, Public Transformation Minister Stanislas Guérini claims to share the same goal as the House of Lords. Éliane Assassi, the author of the text, returns to challenges about the genesis of the bill and its objectives.

Challenges – How did the bill framing the intervention of private consultancies in public policy emerge?

Eliane Assassi – The draft law comes from the commission of inquiry set up by my group in 2021 into the increasing interference of consulting firms in public politics. I was the rapporteur and Arnaud Bazin (LR) was the President. We conducted 40 hearings, 22 of them under oath, and collected more than 7,000 confidential documents. By the end of our research, the growing influence of consulting firms on public policy was as clear as our noses in the face. The need to legislate therefore seemed obvious. All members of the commission signed the bill, which is rare.

What are the goals of the bill?

The text takes up the 19 recommendations of the report of the commission of inquiry. One of his core ideas is the fight against the opaqueness and trivialization of recourse to consulting firms and against their intervention in entire areas of public order. The hearings carried out as part of the investigative commission initially showed that the commissioning of a consulting firm had become a reflex without internal verification of competencies. It is important to ensure that the administrative skills are not in place before consultants are called in. But France has hundreds of civil servants who can think.

Also, at the end of a mission, skills are not re-internalized, which means that the consultancies leave the administration with their skills and data, whereas they could pass them on to officials.

The text also aims to fight against opacity…

We found that the consultants’ intervention had to remain very discreet at the expense of transparency. During COVID-19, for example, McKinsey, asked to manage the crisis, did not use its own logo to write its projects, but that of the administration. A method that does not make it possible to distinguish the contribution of advisers from that of officials. The government was also opaque during the contract that it had given to McKinsey at the end of 2019 as part of the pension reform. The mission cost just over 957,000 euros, with the only tangible traces being a PowerPoint presentation, even though the reform project was unsuccessful.

The day before the bill was considered in committee, the government released a “Budget Report” devoted to ministries’ advisory expenditures. He claims a 10% reduction in consulting services ordered by the state with 118 million euros in the first half of 2022 compared to 131 million in the first half of 2021. Is this a coincidence?

The “household yellow” came out just as the text was about to be debated. This opportunism makes me smile. This shows that the government is on the defensive. And reminds me of the day we interviewed Amélie de Montchalin (then Minister for Transformation and Public Services, ed.) who took the opportunity to announce a circular obliging the state to reduce spending on consultancies by 15%. Not to mention that in the yellow budget the amounts advanced by the state are far below what we have reported. They plan to spend a total of €469 million in 2021, while we estimate it at €893.9 million. This comforts us with the thought that government is far from transparent and that we must end opacity.

Why did you study consulting firms in 2021?

Several events shocked me and prompted me to use my drawing rights to investigate consulting firms. First, during the health crisis, I saw an advisor from a consulting firm speaking at a meeting in the presence of Olivier Véran. I first thought it was someone from the Department of Health Administration before I realized who he was. The parliamentarians were very surprised. When asked, the minister then defended himself by saying that the practice was common. Then we were stunned by the controversy over McKinsey’s intervention in dealing with the health crisis. (Revelations, early 2021, about the influential American consultancy that had advised the government on its vaccination strategy and had close ties to Emmanuel Macron, ed.).

During your investigation you discovered that McKinsey had not paid any corporate income tax for ten years.

This hearing, filmed, gave our committee of inquiry a lot of feedback. We had taken oath in January 2022 to Karim Tadjeddine, one of McKinsey’s leaders, to justify the mission of €500,000 entrusted to his cabinet to assess developments in the teaching profession. He lost his temper when I asked him what the mission had led to. We were able to determine that a project was commissioned, paid for and not carried out. In addition, when asked whether or not McKinsey had paid the profit tax, Karim Tadjeddine replied yes, although it had not. This prompted the Senate President to take legal action on suspicion of making false statements.

The commission of inquiry was interested in the administration and not in municipalities, while many resort to consulting firms. Why?

France has almost 35,000 communes and twelve regions, it’s huge. You are not playing in the same court as the state administration. Local authorities deserve a commission of inquiry, but it would take us two years to conduct it. In addition, there are many democratic filters in the municipalities, such as the elected representatives of the opposition or the State Chamber of Accounts. This is not the case in state administration. For this reason we wanted to exclude local authorities from the investigation.

What are the consequences of the legislative path of the draft law?

It will definitely be passed in the Senate tonight and must then be placed in a parliamentary niche. (Monthly session, in which senators or MPs from an opposition group can submit bills, editor’s note.) and that a political group seize it to present it in the National Assembly.


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