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Book review: ‘The Big Con’ by Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington

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A powerful case that the consulting industry is hollowing out governments and businesses, weakening economies in the process.

At last, the consulting industry is in the headlines. It is finally coming to public attention just how much money is being thrown at big consultancies, and – especially in the case of Covid-19 contracts – with little to show for it.

‘The Big Con: How the Consulting Industry Weakens our Businesses, Infantilizes our Governments and Warps our Economies’ (Allen Lane, £25, ISBN 9780241573082) argues exactly that. The authors are Dr Mariana Mazzucato, professor in the economics of innovation and public value at the UCL Institute for Innovation & Public Purpose, and Rosie Collington, a PhD candidate at that institute.

They recount how, through the 1980s and 1990s, the consulting industry crept in from the sidelines and began to render governments and businesses reliant upon its services. Organisations stopped investing in their own capacity and capabilities, with big consultancies filling the ever-growing hollows of expertise.

One might think that, as long as the client gets what they paid for, does it really matter? ‘The Big Con’ argues that clients often do not get the best outcomes from consultancies, and all the while this reliance stunts innovation, compromises accountability, and even impedes climate action.

The authors provide countless convincing examples of the danger of public overreliance on the consulting industry, such as Deloitte’s role in the UK’s bungled Test and Trace programme (criticised by the Public Accounts Committee for being “overly reliant on expensive contracts”) or McKinsey’s role in France’s bungled vaccine rollout. It is particularly shocking to comprehend how feeble public IT expertise has become, as governments fail to convince the brightest and best to choose public service over the lucrative private IT sector and rely increasingly on outsourcing. One also cannot help but gain the impression of the big consultancies as vultures, feasting on calamitous challenges like Covid-19, Brexit and climate change. Meanwhile, they pose as disinterested and expert helping hands.

The scope is vast; the chapter on consultancies and climate strategies could easily form the basis of a book of its own. Occasionally, intriguing suggestions are raised and not fully developed (for example, the idea that industry’s weakening of the public sector could have something to answer for regarding the rise of populism in the late 2010s). It is hard to say why, as the book is not long as it stands, at around 250 pages without references.

The book concludes on an encouraging note, calling for a recalibration of the role of consultancies. It makes the case that the public sector has, in essence, forgotten how to be innovative. Investing in expertise in the public sector (and within organisations in general) could be the first step to filling in the gaps left by ‘the big con’.

‘The Big Con’ puts forward a forceful argument about an issue about which most ordinary people know little but – given the enormous influence of the consulting industry – have a right to understand and scrutinise. An effective, important and highly readable book.

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