Mitt Romney told the Wall Street Journal last week that if he is elected President, he will "probably" hire McKinsey, the management-consulting firm, to tell him how to reorganize the government. "I'm not kidding," he said, tactfully adding that it might be another management-consulting firm such as Bain (where Romney worked for years and where he got rich) or the Boston Consulting Group. Or he just might call on Jack Welch, who retired years back as CEO of General Electric but has yet to be replaced in the Lee Iacocca Chair as America's semiofficial Business God.
If Romney stands for anything, he stands for management consultantship. This is a belief that pragmatism and brainpower are superior to ideology in understanding the world, although this amounts to an ideology of its own. Romney went on and on about how much he loves "data." Give him a problem, give him the data, give him Jack Welch.
The myth of the management consultant in general and McKinsey in particular has never been stronger. McKinsey consultants are restructuring the educational system of Israel, advising insurers on dealing with Hurricane Katrina, comparing the performance of Indian and American companies, reforming the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Even Time Inc. is a client. And a 36-year-old former McKinsey consultant, Bobby Jindal, has just been elected Governor of Louisiana.
What exactly do management consultants do? I asked this of a McKinsey recruiter many years ago. He said, "We provide expertise." I said, "But you're thinking of hiring me, and I have no expertise." He said, "We'll train you." Nothing about that interview dissuaded me from the view that consultants spend at least as much energy and brainpower selling themselves to clients as they spend doing whatever the client pays them to do.
In the beginning, at about the turn of the last century, what management consultants offered was much clearer. It was called Taylorism, after its inventor, Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor called it scientific management, and it involved slicing up industrial processes into bite-size tasks and then doing detailed time-and-motion studies to determine the most efficient way to perform them. Described in hindsight as "the first big management fad," Taylorism was widely criticized--from the right as a step toward totalitarianism, from the left as soulless and alienating. It was famously parodied by Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball (remember Lucy and Ethel at the candy conveyor belt?).
All that's left of Taylorism among management consultants today is a pretense to scientific precision in whatever it is that consultants do, which generally involves parachuting into some situation, being smarter than everybody else, coming up with a solution--or at least a PowerPoint presentation--and then leaping onto their horses and galloping away. Who was that masked man? At their best, consultants see a situation with fresh eyes and bring some useful analytical tools. At their worst, they are a prestige play verging on a protection racket. Hey, Mr. CEO: Every other big company has hired McKinsey. What's your problem?
The notion that the cacophony of politics can be replaced with the smooth hum of expertise and that all the challenges our society faces can be solved by making the government run more efficiently has a long and generally laughable history. It is not inherently either liberal or conservative. President Dwight Eisenhower actually did hire McKinsey to redesign the presidency. President Jimmy Carter talked endlessly of "reinventing government." He took the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and turned it into two departments. Then there was Ross Perot, the presidential candidate who babbled about opening the hood of a car and tinkering with the innards. President Bill Clinton showed his lack of interest by assigning the subject to Vice President Al Gore. And now there is Romney, who told the Journal that--depending on the data, of course, and whatever McKinsey recommends--he would create a layer of "super-Cabinet" positions so that the President doesn't have "30 direct reports."
If big-shot CEOs are happy to hire McKinsey and then do whatever its 25-year-old hotshots recommend, why shouldn't voters do the same? If you're looking for a reason, look no further than the Times of London, Oct. 29, in which the head of McKinsey, one Ian Davis, addressed the topic of "government as a business." We "must enter the dialogue on how to help resolve" disputatious issues, he recommends. Well, isn't that the definition of politics? But Davis rejects politics. "This is not a partisan issue but an issue beyond political stance."
I dunno. Maybe it sounds better in PowerPoint. Or maybe he's saving the good stuff for paying customers.