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Conspicuous consultation


Consultancy is a huge business, a $300 billion a year business, embracing everything from specialized international consulting firms all the way down to individual experts who will advise you about your rebellious computer or your rebellious children. Clearly we find it hard to navigate through life or work without a helping hand.

Every day we hear that consultants have been “called in” to sort out some corporate mess or another, and I suppose they do. But I’m sure I’m not the first to ask the obvious question; if the consultant can do the job better, why isn’t he or she doing it? Logically any organization run by consultants would be infinitely more efficient than one run by people who can’t manage without consultants.

Anyone can set up as a consultant on just about anything, apart from the great monopolies of medicine and law. All you need is a hefty dose of self-esteem. A consultant by definition is a superior kind of person, who has special knowledge that other people want. Sherlock Holmes was not just a detective, but a "consulting detective," which enormously increased the prestige of that dubious profession.

In the British health care system, the consultant is the highest form of medical life. He even drops the "doctor" from his name and reverts to plain "Mr." as a sign that he is beyond the need for titles. In Britain, if the doctor gives up on you, the chances are you will be fine. If the consultant says your case is hopeless you are as good as doomed. His dignity requires it.

All consultants are or claim to be healers. Their mission is to fix all the things in our lives and businesses that don't work, or that we don't understand. The bulk of the business is management consulting, but there are consultants on garden design, beauty, interior decoration, educational choice, what to do about your cat's bad habits, resumé writing, domestic downsizing and just about every frustrating problem of everyday life. Therapists, counsellors and so-called “influencers” are all consultants of a sort. In fact, we are all potential consultants because we all know at least one thing that other people might want to know. The trick is to get paid for it.

In most cases, consultants will tell you what you could figure out yourself in five minutes. But consulting brings reassurance and is an almost magical device for avoiding responsibility. When a difficult decision is pushed off on to a consultant, nobody else can be blamed. “Scapegoat” is the old-fashioned term for this role. If consultants are too expensive the same result can be achieved with committee meetings. A confusing set of minutes covers a multitude of sins.

Two brave women, Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington, have written a book about this whole phenomenon called The Big Con. It lays out the massive costs of the consulting industry and points out, with many examples, how often they have been disastrously wrong, as in the spectacular Healthcare.gov fiasco in 2013-14, which was entirely created by consultants.

Artificial intelligence is obviously a threat to this business model. If AI machines can be programmed to know everything they will become super-consultants with an inexhaustible fund of expertise to apply to every conceivable problem. In this utopian future nobody will have to do anything or decide anything, and we will be guided through life by our electronic consultants, as we will be guided along the highways by our infallible self-driven cars. What could possibly go wrong?

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.