Gary McKeone: The creepy cult of management consultancy

Personal development, psychometric testing – I'm a veteran

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"I will listen and I will lead." The Prime Minister's words might easily have come from one of those management consultancy workshops where the glib sound-bite rules, the high-sounding but empty phrase that bleeds language of any real meaning –or, indeed, from Follow the Money: The Audit Commission, public money and the management of public services 2003-2008, a new book by Duncan Campbell-Smith.

According to one review of the book, the Commission's record is one of rampant growth and excess, whether budgetary (£15m in 1984 to £220m in 2004, staffing (524 in 1984 to 2,356 in 2004) or practice (500 public sector targets in 1999 to 2,500 targets for local government and transport alone in 2000). Management consultancy features prominently, a territory that has flourished during the tenure of the Labour government.

Perhaps somewhere there exists a self-help group, a Priory-style clinic for those of us who have suffered at the hands of management consultants, a sanctuary where we can gather privately to relive and so exorcise those jargon-filled days, that enforced camaraderie of the cynical and the committed.

I worked for a public-sector quango, Arts Council England, that succumbed to the management consultancy bug. Change management, personal development, leadership training, psychometric testing – I'm a veteran.

It always begins with a restructure, first refuge of the visionless. Forget the view, let's tinker with the window. Next thing you're in a room somewhere learning how to make people redundant; remember your body language; have tissues ready; deliver a clear message; keep a revolver handy (I made that up). Some sad actor is hired to put you through role play, by turns aggressive, pleading, wailing, enacting every imaginable response to the redundancy word so that when you get back to the office to give your colleagues the heave-ho, think of it as a performance, a technique, nothing to do with real life.

Or take the leadership training course, there to make us all masters of the public sector universe. We're gathered in a field at 8.30 one morning, with bamboo canes, a rubber band, a pencil, some string and a hard-boiled egg. Our mission – to construct a device that will propel said egg as far as possible across the field. Genius. From just such challenges are leaders forged. In the distance cud-chewing cows stare across a hedge at us. They're laughing.

The jargon is, of course, endemic; the elephant in the room, to helicopter (apparently something to do with seeing the bigger picture) and the endless diagrams, all circles and arrows, the little yellow post-its we stick on the wall with our individual, life-changing "promise" indicating how we will be better managers: "I will talk more strategically to my staff", "I will value the opinions of others", "I will trust others to trust me to trust them", "I will throw myself out of a helicopter", "I want to be a cow".

Enforced light relief only increases the horror. This usually happens on the last night, when a glimmer of escape fuels the frivolity. At breakfast we're given the instruction in that "let's-all-have-some-fun-in-a-strategic-kind-of-way" voice. We're going to form teams, rehearse a performance piece based on what we've learned on our course and, after supper, we'll perform the pieces for each other in the Rest & Reflect Room. Dear God.

Think of a never-ending nursery-school play minus the innocence. Here come five senior managers pretending to be helicopters, blades whirring, all chug-chug noises and formation flying, eyes ablaze with earnestness; they've gone over to the other side leaving behind any semblance of the real world; they are now leaders, their faces shining with the ardour of the convert. Their piece is a dramatisation of a policy document called "Diversity and Inclusion: A Paradigm for Progress." All irony is suspended.

We applaud vigorously; we cheer; we have to. The only way through this agony is to subscribe to the illusion. We're all in this together. I won't tell if you won't. Sure wasn't it fun? Damn the expense, we're worth it.

No sooner are we back in our real-world offices than we're summoned to another room, windowless (always a bad sign), to be told that the impending change is good news (a very bad sign). There will be difficult decisions (redundancies) but we are empowered to make them (payback time for all that fresh country air and egg-throwing). Besides, always remember that "less is more". Just as fatter is thinner, colder is warmer, shorter is taller, and pitter is patter.

Alas, after all that expensive training, I didn't survive the cull (strategic diminution of core costs). But at least I knew how to handle the news.

Gary McKeone was literature director at Arts Council England

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