I’ve been reading The Big Con: How the Consulting Industry Weakens Our Businesses, Infantilizes Our Governments, and Warps Our Economies by Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington after hearing Collington talk about it on Tech Won’t Save Us. The interview made me start to question a lot of the hype cycles I bought into throughout my career, and the book has really made me think about my work and colleagues in a different light. A very bleak light.
It’s kind of related to my earlier thoughts about how the political economy creates poor public services. Since decision makers in the public sector decided that the private sector knows best, and that the state should emulate corporate interests in the vague promise of efficiency, we are collectively beholden to consulting companies. The public sector is dissuaded from hiring people to provide services, perform research, or maintain infrastructure. Why do that when you can hire consultants to do it for you? They are the best and brightest! They know how to turn profits! Except running public programs for the state — which inherently must serve everybody — is very different than programs which can be more selective. Also it’s clear that many of these companies are more expert getting more contracts than delivering actually good service. They reap the rewards when there’s success, but the state gets the blame when there’s failure. (That’s a feature, not a bug, public private partnerships — a height of neoliberalism.)
And this makes me think of the Obama-era fever dream of open data. I was full on the promise train of open data and the democratization of information to help make the world a better place. Only it became clear as I watched it unfold that open data was an abdication of responsibility from the state. “We can’t provide you services so we’ll just open up the data and let the private sector do it. Good luck.” And the shining star of this whole movement was Code For America. CfA did some pretty cool things, and I think the civic tech movement was different than a lot of their private sector counterparts like the big consulting companies. But ultimately they were hamstrung by the need to make money and rely on the generosity of private capital, and announced layoffs today. They were the good ‘uns, but didn’t fix the broken system. (Also they are fighting a union drive by their workers… which communicates a certain set of values.)
And there are lots of reasons people will give of why the public sector is bad at a variety of things. But I think some of it must be attributed to the fact that it’s by design. Our state has been made in the image that those consultants we pay want, which of course enshrines them as part of the fabric. So we keep relying on the private sector to do things for us, and then sell us access to the work we paid them to do for us in the first place. Our only failure is letting this system take root in the first place.