Rosie Collington is seeking to call the consulting sector’s bluff.
The UCL researcher is on a mission to challenge the notion that “consultancies exist on the scale and scope they do today because they create value in the economy.”
Collington — one author of ‘The Big Con: How the consulting industry weakens our businesses, infantilizes our governments and warps our economies’ — told City A.M. that once she started looking into the sector it became “very clear” the assumptions around the value consultancies create are “definitely not evidenced and in fact can be challenged empirically”.
“The burden of proof is really on the firms, and they haven’t given the receipt,” she said.
Collington’s first contact with the world of consultants came through her experience in academia.
The 29-year-old political economist saw her classmates flow into the sector, and quickly become disillusioned with the industry.
Collington later gained first-hand experience working inside one of the Big Four firms herself, through a secondment scheme. She said the experience raised many questions about the sector, as she noted even the team she worked with “was quite frank about the fact they didn’t really know what they were there to do.”
The idea to write a book came after Collington and her co-author, world-leading economist Mariana Mazzucato, began discussing the UK government’s use of consultants during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In seeking to tackle the pandemic, the government spent millions on consulting services, including paying almost £40m to Deloitte for services surrounding the failed ‘test-and-trace’ initiative.
She noted Mazzucato’s own experiences with consultants.
“Mariana, through her policy advisory work, was often noticing that when she was at these top decision-making tables, there would be a graduate from McKinsey sat there,” Collington said. “She would be like, ‘Why are they here?’… ‘What is their role?’”
The problem with consultancies, Collington argues, is the advice they give to governments gradually increases the state’s dependence on their services, and knowledge and skills have been transferred from the state to these firms.
The use of consultancies boomed under Margaret Thatcher, which saw spending surge from around £6m a year at the start of her tenure to £246m when she left in 1990.
She argues that the added lack of transparency around consulting firms’ work — for example for fossil fuel companies — also leaves the potential for huge conflicts of interest when advising governments.
“Historically, these firms have offered a very narrow view of what good economics and good government look like,” Collington said. “We can’t argue they’re neutral in their advice.”
The solution? Bring that advisory capacity back in-house. In-house consultancies, she said, would return that knowledge back to the state and potentially better protect it from conflicts of interests.
The UK government scrapped plans to set up an in-house consultancy in January — a plan initially formed by Dominic Cummings.
Perhaps her book, published on Thursday, will see the idea return soon.