How consultants like McKinsey took over France

Private companies now involved in everything from country’s vaccine rollout to combating climate change

By Elisa Braun and Paul de Villepin
February 8, 2021

This article is also available in: French

PARIS — The elite civil servant occupies a special place in the French imagination. Civil, refined, unflusterable, a steady hand on the state tiller — what James Bond is to the British spy service, the haut fonctionnaire is to the French ideal of administrative governance.

But lately, a new breed of bureaucrat has been prowling the Parisian corridors of government power. High-powered consultants from firms like McKinsey, Accenture, BCG and Capgemini are playing ever-more important roles in delivering basic government services — replacing, or even displacing, a generation of public civil servants.

New figures seen by POLITICO show that McKinsey obtained the lion’s share of a raft of recent contracts signed with six consulting firms for COVID-19 related projects, with €4 million out of a total of over €11 million going to the leading consulting firm alone.

Conservative lawmaker Véronique Louwagie, a budget rapporteur on several health files, who obtained the details of the contracts from the health ministry, said she wanted to “sound the alarm” after her findings.

“Generally speaking, hiring consulting firms doesn’t shock me too much,” she said. But “the frequency bothers me, the acceleration [in recent months] too,” she added. “The question today is: Is it normal for an administration such as the health one not to be able to fulfill a number of missions?”

France is by no means the only country to have turned to the private sector to help run the state’s affairs. Many of its neighbors — the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Switzerland — have relied on consultancies for years, if not decades.

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But a practice that is increasingly seen as normal elsewhere has sparked controversy in France, a country that has traditionally taken great pride in the quality of its civil service and looked askance at the private sector’s intrusions in public matters. News that McKinsey was working on France’s vaccination efforts — first reported last month by POLITICO — was greeted by outrage from opposition politicians.

And yet, France has increased its use of consultancies in recent years, according to a review by POLITICO of public datasets on public tenders, internal documents and interviews with more than 30 professionals from the public administration and consultancies. The French administration has made public at least 575 contracts with private consultancies since October 2018, for services ranging from crafting economic recovery plans to charting a path to carbon neutrality to helping battle the coronavirus.

Work for the public sector accounted for nearly 10 percent of revenues at French consultancy companies in 2018, amounting to €657 million, according to the European Federation of Management Consultancies Associations (FEACO). That puts France ahead of Italy and Spain in terms of spending, which both began using consultancies much earlier, but still behind the United Kingdom or Germany — where revenues from the public sector account respectively for more €2.6 billion and €3.1 billion.

Whether one sees it, as many surrounding President Emmanuel Macron do, as the modernization of an ossified bureaucracy, or as a foreign practice that raises important questions about transparency, accountability and the erosion of the French state, what’s clear is that, with little public debate, private consultancies are playing an ever more important role in the delivery of basic government services.

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“I think that the state has lowered its guard and that maybe France has disarmed itself in health matters,” Louwagie said. The MP will present her conclusions on February 17.

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