10 Aug 2021

Covid-19 recovery driving contracting surge in public sector

10:35 am on 10 August 2021

Contractors working for the government on pandemic programmes are making millions of dollars from some agencies, and little or nothing at others.

No caption

The Beehive. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The spending on Covid-focused contractors and consultants ranges from $13m at the Ministry of Health and $10m at the small Ministry of Culture and Heritage, to $28,000 at the large Justice Ministry, to nothing at the Defence Force which has up to 1200 staff managing MIQ.

The $30m in total spending, revealed in OIA responses from 13 out of 30 agencies asked for the information, is chickenfeed compared to the billions going into recovery.

But it is only part of the picture, according to recruiters who talk of a sector that is pumped-up and "feel-good" like never before.

Troy Turner of the Recruitment, Consulting and Staffing Association.

Photo: Supplied

"The demand from Covid is huge," said Troy Turner of the Recruitment, Consulting and Staffing Association.

"There's a large volume, probably an unprecedented volume of programmes, projects, and initiatives underway, with Covid being probably the mechanism, but also a government with the funding and now the mandate."

'It's popular'

Demand means dollars, but with the money comes meaning.

"Right now, Ashley Bloomfield has a t-shirt that people are willing to wear. So it's popular," Turner said.

"They're doing really interesting work... they are there for social purpose."

A time of high demand and deep uncertainty about how many hands the agencies need for which new jobs, and for how long, is fuelling a mini-boom especially in Wellington - and rates at the top end of $2000-$3000 a day - though not across the board.

A third of the 30 agencies told RNZ they don't employ any Covid contractors at all, even when they have set up new pandemic teams, such as the two at the Public Service Commission or Oranga Tamariki's new national Incident Management team.

Others like Corrections and Customs spent a little, just $250,000 each.

Big spenders

Still others have rapidly set up new teams, and also spent a lot - the Health Ministry spent $12.8m on Covid contractors for the 2020-21 financial year; the less-essential Culture and Heritage Ministry, $10m total by the time it wraps up its pandemic teams this year.

This ministry is unusual for having its pandemic response dominated by contractors, who have made up half or three-quarters of its Covid workforce.

It was paying its Covid programme director $2000 a day for 14 months, and had contractors in charge of five Covid teams.

The ministry says it had a great deal to do in very little time, to help support over 1500 artists and organisations, and boost events and venues.

The public sector Covid contracts are typically for a few months work.

"Not all of that is bad," Turner said.

"Because you can't see a natural end, you can't put a permanent person into a three-month piece of work, or if you do, you have to backfill that person."

At the Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield's 1000-strong ministry, things have yo-yoed - from 70 Covid contractors last year, to 123 in March this year making up 40 percent of its main pandemic team, to 38 now.

It was $5m under budget, at $12.8m at mid-year.

"All efforts have been made to transition contractors to permanent/fixed-term employment arrangements," the Health Ministry told RNZ.

The Ministry for Social Development (MSD) initially said it used no contractors on Covid-19 but revised this to say it redeployed 36 contractors at a cost of $1.65m. The ministry faced "unprecedented demand" for essential services, it said. 

Te Puni Kokiri, meantime, spent $2.3m on 33 contracts, some with community organisations to run vaccine awareness campaigns, but half of it on three of the big consultant firms - EY, PWC and Deloitte.

PWC charged TPK up to $3500 a day.

Another consultant - who are basically contractors given more free rein - charged DOC $2800 a day.

Individual contractors more typically collect $1000 a day, but can get up to $250-$280 an hour.

Treasury spent $1.9m on 23 contractors across four or its six teams, at rates of between $45 and $200 an hour. It also spent another $2.7m on consultants.

Most of this total of $4.6m was spent in its Firm Support Directorate that operated from April last year till February, giving support to businesses.

Money and meaning

Contractors generally made 20-30 percent more than employees, Turner said.

"People think it's money-related.

"But there's so much change, that if you had a passion ... you can live that out now, which is not always the case," he said.

"Lo and behold, there is a demand."

The pull factors were adding to a growing wedge of the labour market turning to temporary work, he added.

But there is 'push', too, from the three-year public sector partial pay freeze.

"To think that you might have to move jobs, or move organisations, to get a pay rise in the next three years, is quite disruptive," Turner said.

"That has made people consider contracting when they might not have."

The OIA figures are an underestimate; they may miss contractors who do some Covid work, but not all; and miss those who are brought in to cover for staff lost to pandemic duties.

Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade set up two new divisions for pandemic work but also added to four existing divisions, with resources not captured by the OIA even though some of what they do is "key to the ... recovery strategy".

Covid contractor numbers from Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, MSD, Education and Ministry for Primary Industries are either still awaited or incomplete.

  • Union worker: Pay freeze an attempt at intimidation by a government scared of strikes
  • Govt agency recruitment hurting private business, lobby group says
  • Police union urges action on recruitment as officers leave force