The society we live in may aptly be described as a “consultocracy”

Tuesday, May 30th, 2023

Geoff Shullenberger was teaching at a large private university in the final years of the Obama administration, when the university reacted to some student protests by convening a task force on diversity, equity, and inclusion, which brought in outside consultants to conduct a “climate assessment” of the entire institution:

In effect, this was a long online survey that all employees and students were encouraged, cajoled, and bribed (with pizza and the like) into filling out over the course of some months. The survey asked respondents to translate their feelings of comfort and discomfort within the institution into a series of numerical ratings. The consultants then synthesized the resulting data into a public presentation; this glorified PowerPoint was ceremoniously presented as the crowning achievement of the DEI task force — soon after which it was summarily disbanded


Why did those leading the university see hiring an external consultancy as the obvious and necessary response to the students’ objections? And why did most community members accept this approach without any questions? The answer, as Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington suggest in their new book, The Big Con, is that we live under the sway of “consultology.” This is their shorthand for the cluster of assumptions and practices that inform the vast and powerful consulting industry, which has become a defining element of our professional lives, economy, and governance structures.

As a result, the society we live in may aptly be described as a “consultocracy.” Not only nonprofit educational institutions but Fortune 500 corporations, nongovernmental organizations, and government agencies all regularly undergo processes like the one described above. When those leading such organizations find themselves confronting some novel situation — be it internal unrest, a pandemic, declining market share, rapid technological change, or any number of other eventualities — they turn, by ingrained second nature, to external management consultancies and lay out significant sums for their coveted guidance.


Another question is how this omnipresent industry has remained in the shadows despite having left its mark on nearly every organization in Western societies over decades. These questions are closely related because, as it turns out, the success of consulting has depended partly on the industry’s capacity to avoid public scrutiny and duck accountability for its often dubious contributions to the management of firms and governments.


The basic modus operandi of consultancies is not “ownership of scarce valuable knowledge assets” but rather “the possession of the means to create an impression of value.” Put simply, consultancies subsist not by actually making demonstrable positive contributions to the functioning of organizations but by conjuring up the appearance they are doing so.


What do organizations gain from bringing in external talent on short-term contracts rather than cultivating it internally? The basic pitch of the industry, they show, is that “learning … can be bought off the shelf, rather than developed over time through cumulative resource and knowledge investments.” The result is that the “Big Con is preventing governments and businesses from evolving the capabilities they need,” leaving them infantilized and dysfunctional — all of which makes continued dependence on consultancies inevitable.

How a political economy so favorable to the consulting industry came into being is a complicated story, but The Big Con implicates in particular the influence of “Third Way” center-left governments such as Tony Blair’s in the United Kingdom and Bill Clinton’s in the United States. In the wake of the midcentury expansion of the regulatory state and public programs, the Thatcher-Reagan revolution had castigated big government and attempted to limit its scope and functions (with less success than often imagined). Figures like Blair and Clinton offered a compromise: a “vision of government,” Mazzucato and Collington write, “as responsible for meeting public needs without necessarily providing public services itself.” Consulting firms played a massive role in implementing this vision, both offering guidance to governments on how to shrink payrolls and enact public-private partnerships and offering their own services on the “private” side of these partnerships.

According to The Big Con, global management consultancy revenue was 10 times greater in 2021 than in 1999 — without much to show for it except a massive financial crisis, secular stagnation, and mounting institutional crises across the West.


The penultimate chapter of The Big Con is dedicated to perhaps the most significant alignment of consulting firms with a progressive political cause: the rise of “climate consulting.” The market for this once-small field of consulting is expected to grow to more than $8.5 billion by 2028.


It’s worth noting you could easily replace the phrase “climate crisis” in this passage with “systemic racism,” “toxic masculinity,” “gender disparities,” “pandemics,” or any number of other causes taken up by the political Left in recent years — all of which, as it happens, have offered opportunities for consultants to cash in, whether specialized in DEI, ESG, or public health. Although Mazzucato and Collington do not say so, there is a clear symbiosis between progressive invocations of perpetual, pervasive crisis and the consulting industry’s capacity to expand the demand for its services.


  1. Jim says:

    Consultocracy: rule by officially-unofficial cryptically-appointed regime-approved soothsayer-commissar.

  2. Wang Wei Lin says:

    If you don’t know enough about your business or don’t have the backbone to make hard standalone decisions and hire a consultant, you deserve to fail.

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