MCA CEO Tamzen Isacsson responds to claims of 'The Big Con'

22 February 2023 4 min. read
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A new book has criticised the activities of consultants for corporations and states around the world; with Mariana Mazzucto and Rosie Collington’s ‘The Big Con’ claiming to spell out how the advisory industry “infantilises” governments and “warps” economies. Responding to this, Tamzen Isacsson, Chief Executive of the UK’s Management Consultancies Association, writes that this misrepresents the importance of consulting work – and explains why the global industry is so successful.

The job of the consultant is to be a trusted adviser. To rigorously analyse the best possible data. To bring to bear specialist expertise and experience across multiple sectors to give the client a new perspective on how they can achieve their goals.

A new book on the consulting sector titled ‘The Big Con’ has recently been published focusing on the growth of the sector but arguing that government and clients are too reliant on consultants and that the more they outsource, the less they know. Disappointingly, it is clear that the author Mariana Mazzucto does not understand the management consulting industry in the UK which is in fact a great British success story and one of the biggest and most highly regarded in the world. A sector growing 25% last year and creating 10,000 new jobs over the next couple of years recruiting record school leavers and apprentices.

MCA CEO Tamzen Isacsson responds to claims of 'The Big Con'

The UK civil service is one of the best in the world employing highly talented, motivated and dedicated people. Far from being infantilised, as the authors allege, the partnerships which our sector has formed with the public sector have been some of the most intellectual, dynamic and productive in the world. They have also frequently come at times when the nation urgently needed extra skills and capacity for example during the pandemic when the government faced an unprecedented workload. Take for example the sector’s work on the roll out of the Covid 19 vaccine and the bulk manufacturing of the Oxford vaccine which would not have been delivered on time without the intervention of specialist consultancy services.

Partnerships which empower the civil service are common. For example, the Ministry of Defence has employed consultants to increase awareness of cyber-attacks amongst its quarter of a million personnel and bring about lasting behavioural change. The project surpassed targets threefold and save the MoD at least half a million pounds while substantially reducing the risk of a cyber-attack not being detected. Once again civil servants were left better off than when they engaged consultants.

The same can be said when one of our member’s was asked to help NHS England cope with the backlog of women who had not undergone breast screening due to the pandemic. That screening programme saves thousands of lives, but thousands were at risk because it had not been able to operate. A programme was developed to deal with the backlog which delivered tangible results with a reduction in the number of women delayed for screening by two thirds which saw an increase of 35 per cent in the number of women treated for cancer within 12 months.

These are three of examples of effective partnership between three of our members and the civil service which have built services, empowered civil servants and ultimately saved lives. These are the facts. Our profession has a positive impact across so many areas of our public and private sectors helping drive technology transformation in some of the UK’s biggest high street brands, supporting clients to achieve net zero ambitions and keeping financial institutions secure from global crime.

Tens of thousands of clients use our services as they offer access to skills and capabilities not offered in house and fundamentally transfer knowledge to clients leaving them better equipped to respond to future challenges on their own. It is unrealistic to expect government to employ a vast pool of resources and far more cost efficient to use them for short term projects helping improve the efficiency and delivery of critical national services. As part of legal contracts consultancy firms are required to ensure they upskill civil servants and transfer knowledge and skills to increase the capability of the civil service for the future.

As an industry we always seek to raise standards which is why we have partnered with the CMI and have introduced the Chartered Management Consultant award to ensure the highest standards across the industry in terms of delivery and, crucially, ethics.

The consultancy profession in the UK has enjoyed considerable growth in recent times. The reason for that is the value we add and the contribution we make to our clients and partners in the public and private sectors. All our member firms are committed to upholding high standards of ethics, client service and value and have strict internal governance procedures to ensure the public interest is being served.

Tamzen Isacsson is the CEO of the Management Consultancies Association. The MCA is the representative body for management consultancy firms in the UK, and has been at the heart of the national industry since 1956.