20 Dec 2017

MBIE promises to cut back on consultants

5:54 pm on 20 December 2017

Officials under attack for spending multi-million dollars on outside contractors are promising they will cut back.

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Economic Development Minister David Parker was briefed by the ministry on the leak on Monday. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

A spreadsheet leaked earlier this month shows the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's spending on contractors had doubled in four years.

Economic Development Minister David Parker was briefed by the ministry on the leak on Monday, soon after returning from a trade conference in Argentina.

He declined an interview with RNZ, but in a statement said he had received "assurances" about the ministry's use of contractors.

He did not explain what those assurances were.

The data shows $251 million in payments to more than 2000 individual contractors over a four year period, rising from $44m four years ago to over $80m in the last financial year.

It also shows a quadrupling of non-employees being paid more than $200,000 a year.

For example, one immigration management consultant was paid $145,000 last year on a $200-plus hourly rate.

The ministry is understood to be on the hunt for the person who leaked the data.

The leak has been in the hands of journalists for several days now, and Mr Parker told RNZ the ministry had pointed out to him two errors in some of the figures that had been reported.

"The errors in the raw data underscore why MBIE previously raised concerns ... about the data," he said.

"The unauthorised spreadsheet is a dump of raw data that contains many inaccuracies and misclassifications and cannot be relied upon," said

In a statement, Stewart McRobie - the ministry's Chief Financial Officer - said the spreadsheet was "not quality assured or audited".

"We strongly caution against using any of the figures."

If media reports identified individuals, it could breach the privacy laws, he said.

The ministry's spending reported to Parliament every year was audited by Audit New Zealand, and that would happen again in 2018, he said.

"We will report openly and transparently."

The ministry said chief executive Carolyn Tremain began further work in October to achieve a "significant reduction" in contractor and consultancy spending "where it is necessary or economic to do so".

It had already cut numbers by 105 and "further significant reductions are expected", Mr McRobie said.

It would next report to the Minister on the reductions in contractor expenditure in March 2018.

Earlier this year, Labour, in Opposition, strongly criticised the ministry for relying on outsiders to do what it said should be core business.

Yesterday, Mr Parker declined to comment on whether he supported the ministry's hunt for the whistleblower or the whistleblower's actions.

"I am aware that the current CEO [Carolyn Tremain] is reducing the number of consultants and their resultant costs," he said in the statement.

Consultants include accounting firms PWC and Deloittes and engineering consultancies such as BECA and Opus.

RNZ has asked the ministry for its plans and targets for the cutting the number of consultants.

The spreadsheet shows spending on consultants has dropped steadily from $18m to $11m a year, across a total of 1800 contracts in four years.

In an email, the whistleblower has claimed the ministry was intent on misrepresenting the level of spending.

"I could have raised concern within government but I don't believe my concerns would have been properly acted upon."

Contractors are typically individuals hired through recruitment firms.

The data shows 14 contractors being paid more than $200 an hour and another 370 more than $100 an hour. The number earning more than $200,000 a year quadrupled from 22 to 91 over the four years.

The highest paid person received $1.2m for advising on a system that shows police and emergency services where a 111 caller is located.

The figures suggest this advisor has been working full-time for the ministry for four years.

A lot of the spend is on IT people but one contractor on the telecommunications regulatory framework review charged $3000 a day.

A communications advisor made more than $500,000 over four years, charging $140 an hour, and another communications person $900 a day.

In 2016, the average annual salary across the public sector was $74,000 or about $35 an hour.

The superministry has been faulted previously for having weak workforce development.

At least one of its 100-strong business units, its building regulator, has 40 percent of its positions vacant.