Rich pickings

Rip-Off!: the scandalous inside story of the management consulting money machine

David Craig <em>

Ever since the release of Wall Street, Oliver Stone's 1987 account of insider dealing and asset-stripping, investment banking has suffered from an image problem. The film portrayed a world of long hours and loose morals, inhabited by sharks whose governing mantra was, "Greed is good!" The recent spate of high-profile City lawsuits suggests that little has changed.

For those who found Stone's depiction of the financial world off-putting, management consulting seemed the perfect alternative. Here was a profession where level-headed analysis was valued over testosterone-fuelled avarice. When I was at university in the mid-1990s, earnest contemporaries would eagerly submit to endless presentations, interviews and psychometric testing, all for the chance to don a sober suit and carry a laptop.

David Craig has now done for consulting what Stone did for investment banking, although Craig sets about his task in a more methodical fashion. He makes up for what he lacks in panache with credibility, having worked as a management consultant for 20 years. Craig does not quote Marx, but he does confirm Marx's observation that the staunchest advocates of capitalism will always try to manipulate the system in their favour.

A typical management consultancy contract stipulates that the client will pick up the bill for the consultant's travel expenses. Nothing wrong with that, you might think - except that most consultancies have a deal with a travel agent guaranteeing them an end-of-year volume discount. So while the invoice will be correct at the time of submission, the real cost will be up to 25 per cent less - a differential that ends up in the consultancy's coffers.

And what of the work itself? According to Craig, most consultants are glorified time-and-motion analysts whose solution invariably involves (yes, you guessed it) sacking 30 per cent of the workforce. That achieved, they move on to making real money by selling "technology solutions" - although this, it emerges, is pretty much a contradiction in terms.

It can plausibly be argued that if businesses are foolish enough to invite in these hucksters, then that is their problem. Of serious concern, however, is the extent to which the present government is willing to offer up the public sector as a cash cow for consultants.

New Labour's slavish devotion to consultancy began in 1996 when Andersen Consulting laid on a seminar for a hundred Labour MPs, with the theme: "How to be an efficient minister". Since 1997, no arm of government has been safe from the men and women with laptops. In Whitehall, John Birt, the man who ushered in McKinsey's ill-fated internal market at the BBC, hovers around Tony Blair like a latter-day Cardinal Richelieu. Just last month the Prime Minister installed David Bennett (who, like Birt, was once on the McKinsey payroll) as the man to advise him on sorting out the civil service.

It may well be that the civil service needs reform, just as the BBC under Birt undoubtedly did. If the private sector is to be involved, however, it would surely be better if the process were not overseen by people who swoon at the sound of corporate buzzwords or the sight of a PowerPoint presentation.

David Craig writes Rip-Off! in the style of an extended management report - after 20 years in the game, perhaps he is unable to work any other way. He crunches the numbers, rolls out the case studies and signposts his arguments with bullet points. This strategy mostly works well, although there are times when it becomes repetitive. I also found it hard to be shocked by the anecdotes about foul language in the office and lechery outside it.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan used to win easy laughs among free marketeers with his gag that the ten words every American dreaded were: "I'm from the government and I am here to help." Twenty years on, it is the line "I'm from the management consultancy and I am here to help" that should strike fear into the heart of every middle manager and company foot soldier.

Nick Greenslade works for the Observer