Jodie Bruning exposes the millions of dollars the Government is spending on consultants, which she argues, are effectively delivering pre-packaged, locked and loaded policy that is oblivious to the concerns and interests of the public.
There’s a lot going on across New Zealand government agencies, and I suspect that the government is not too keen on us understanding what is going on behind closed doors …
Our policies increasingly appear pre-packaged. Officials and Ministers talk of delivery in terms of objectives that appear ‘locked and loaded’ before the public is consulted. Any public consultation that follows then appears – at best – performative. Thousands may submit to consultation, but policy and law then moves forward, as per the initial Cabinet proposals with only minor tweaking.
This pattern is especially true when it comes to the deployment and integration of technologies across the population, and the management of long-term social ‘goods’ like freshwater and health. The introduction and instalment of technology – be it chemical, digital or medical – requires rich and considered debate. Because when it comes to risk and harm, the consequences can be complex, nebulous, and difficult to establish.
Like democracy – policy development requires informational pathways where the ‘evidence’ produced arises from individuals and institutions who do not have a political or financial conflict of interest in the policy outcome. Because we have systemic underfunding of public good science and research to steward human, environmental, and democratic health, it is increasingly big business that provides the evidence, calls the shots, and claims to be the arbiter of truth.
How does this happen?
I’ve been making Official Information Act requests in order to understand how the New Zealand government made – and continues to make – decisions that embed technologies from novel gene technologies to digital identity systems into society; and which reduce the power of local populations to steward both freshwater and health. These policy and scientific environments are blackboxed, but the potential outcomes can not only undermine public health, but also, democratic health.
I increasingly consider that the policy initiatives that ministers are ‘delivering on’ are designed and deployed through institutions whose primary alliances are with actors outside of New Zealand. These actors have multiple conflicts of interest. They’re owned by large institutional interests with problematic political affiliations.
I believe that fundamental norms of public and administrative law – processes of transparency and accountability – are advancing swiftly, possibly in the most accelerated fashion since the 1980s and 1990s. This has been operationalised through the use of external management consultants. They have fundamentally controlled the development of policy and strategy.
But the machinery that might contest this, is broken. Court action for mandates over a vaccine that was never designed to prevent transmission of infection, has revealed a judiciary unwilling to deal with the complexity of open-ended systems and long-term and/or biological risk. It’s shown how the Crown has primarily depended on the institutions with the financial conflict of interest to provide evidence of safety and efficacy.
It’s increasingly evident New Zealand’s legacy media struggle to construct long-form investigative articles that challenge institutional power. They can pick on farmers but not big pharma; greenhouse emissions but not chemical and polluting emissions. The Fourth Estate’s wings are clipped.
New Zealand, and the countries we have traditionally allied with, are no longer quite as transparently accountable to the publics that they once claimed to serve.
One of the main drivers of this metabolic rift may arise from pervasive institutional dependence on global consultancy firms.
Strategy and management consultancy firms
Economist Mariana Mazzucato is firmly and persistently drawing attention to the money that can disappear into the coffers of management and strategy consultancy firms, and the negative effects that reverberate from governments treating these private organisations as their right-hand man.
Mazzucato considers that public sector reliance on consultancy firms not only obfuscates political accountability but ‘infantilises’ governments. When governments outsource expertise in highly technical environments, they reduce the knowledge bank of expertise in the public sector. These powerful global, consultancy firms not only profit from services rendered, but they accumulate knowledge from the work that they do.
‘Privatisation and outsourcing can remove tasks from people with long experience of doing them (civil servants) and give them to people whose experience may be much less (private companies). This is a matter of policy, not inherent capability… The consequence, however, has been to hollow out the government’s capacity, run down its skills and expertise, and demoralise public servants…’
These processes result in knowledge vacuums inside our public sector, while the contracted institutions gain expertise and insight.
They also leave public sector management vulnerable to the vagaries of bidding for contracts, as they have little technical expertise to identify when contractors are taking advantage of the asymmetries of knowledge.
These big agencies frequently have financial conflicts of interest. In the Mission Economy, Mazzucato states:
‘Use of consultants also raises important questions of accountability, especially when one of their projects goes wrong, and conflicts of interest – for example, when a consultant works simultaneously for a global health client and a client in a sector such as coal, which harms healthy. Unfortunately, the secrecy surrounding many consultancy contracts makes it hard to answer these questions definitively.’
For example, Pfizer and management consultancy firm PwC have a history of working together, yet the PwC was the main consultancy firm used by New Zealand’s Ministry of Health in the Covid pandemic. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing, only that it might have been better to use an unrelated entity.
Mazzucato’s latest book The Big Con, due for release in February 2023, is set to delve into this topic even more deeply.
In 2021, New Zealand spent nearly NZ$1 billion outsourcing external contractors and consultants.
In addition, the larger consultancy firms (that get the larger multimillion dollar contracts) are partner firms with the most powerful lobby group ever constructed.
The World Economic Forum is ‘the International Organisation for Public-Private Cooperation’. The World Economic Forum (WEF) – a self-described policy think tank – actively seeks to influence domestic government policy.
Yet the consultants who contract to our agencies, the Ministry of Health, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (etc), are involved in the deployment and delivery of policy.
The WEF is a powerful collective. Variously referred to as a transnational élite club, a policy intermediary, and a brokering organisation – the WEF connects the market (big business) with the world of politics. Our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is one of their young global leaders. Their extensive ‘partner’ base encompasses pretty much every corporation you can think of – tech, food, banking, and pharma. The WEF appears particularly interested in the strategic and economic potential of biotechnology and digital acceleration.
And yes, the WEF is a partner with the New Zealand government to co-design actionable governance frameworks for AI regulation. But of course, the WEF’s partners are big business.
The only NGOs that are involved with the WEF are those that are resource rich and globally active. The WEF does not represent civil society, nor indigenous groups, nor grassroots environmental organisations. But of course, firms such as Pfizer, Amazon, Alibaba, and Google are also partners.
What we observe is increasing government dependency on management consultancy firms that are embedded in these offshore global institutions, which exclude civil society.
In order to understand just how much New Zealand officials have depended on the strategic insight provided by these powerful WEF-aligned consultancy firms, I’ve asked the major government agencies involved in New Zealand’s Covid response to confirm how much money has been paid to management consultancy firms. The New Zealand public deserve to know how much strategy has been funnelled through these private institutions which then results in policies and laws that impact their daily lives.
The Ministry of Health paid PwC $16.8 million between April 2020 and June 2022 for services rendered.
Income directed to contractors and consultants servicing the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) tripled from $3 million to $9 million from 2018-22. The growth has been principally driven by Covid. The number of consultancies used have shrunk slightly, which tells us that more money is going to a select few.
Vote Prime Minister and Cabinet 2022/23 Estimates Examination Responses to the pre-hearing questions Submitted to the Governance and Administration Committee on 17 June 2022. P.54
The DPMC paid Ernst & Young (now EY) over $11.5 million between 2020-2022. This was for leadership and delivery of the government’s response to the Review recommendations the Health and Disability System Review Transition Unit.
Consultancy fees were paid for the All of Government public information campaign for Covid and for media buying and placements to promote the campaign, across legacy and social media. Clemenger received $13,661,410 from the DPMC for their work developing the Covid communications campaign, and the ongoing strategy and planning advice.
OMD New Zealand Limited was paid over $68 million for media buying for the Unite Against Covid campaign and the vaccine campaign in the 2021/2022 financial year alone – and the total spend over three years was over $100 million.
Both Clemenger BBDO and OMD New Zealand Limited are principally owned by Omnicom, who is also a WEF partner.
Covid does not appear to be finished for the DPMC. Vote estimates for the 2022/2023 financial year reveal that the DPMC is doubling their funding for funding directed to ‘Epidemiological Modelling, Disinformation Monitoring and Risk Assessment’ to $6.7 million. The DPMC are significantly increasing funding for the DPMC’s All of Government COVID-19 response coordination from $18 million to $31 million.
Some agencies are prevaricating about responding to my September Official Information Act requests, claiming they need to consult before they can respond.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment significantly extended my September 22 request requiring they declare money paid to PwC, Deloitte, Boston Consulting Group, and the McKinsey & Company. The extension has been necessary due to consultation required with the named consultancy firms, and with other agencies.
The Department of Internal Affairs for monies paid to PWC, Deloitte, Boston Consulting Group, and McKinsey for services related to the delivery of Three Waters, has been pushed out again. Apparently, my request:
‘…necessitates a search through a large quantity of information and meeting the original time limit would unreasonably interfere with the operations of the Department. Additionally, consultations necessary to make a decision on the request are such that a proper response to the request cannot reasonably be made within the original time limit.’
There’s a lot of back-room consultation going on.
The question is, has the majority of New Zealand government strategy for our health system, for digital identity services, for Covid, and our Three Waters policy reforms been directed by consultancy and strategy firms who are institutional partners to the greatest private sector lobby group in the history of the world?
Jodie Bruning is a consultant sociologist based in New Zealand. Her work explores governance cultures, policy and the production of scientific and technical knowledge. Her Master’s thesis explored the ways science policy creates barriers to funding, stymying scientists’ efforts to explore upstream drivers of harm. Bruning is a trustee of Physicians & Scientists for Global Responsibility. Papers and writing can be found at talkingrisk.nz and at jrbruning.substack.com and at Talking Risk on Rumble.
This article was first published at The Spectator.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent or reflect those of The Looking Glass.