Engineering Political Discourse: Business Consultants in the German Public Sector, 1950s to 1990s

This paper retraces shifting traditions in the German consulting business from 1945 to the 2000s and asks how the increasing Americanization of local management consultancy played out in advising the public sector. Why did German government agencies and high-profile politicians in the early 2000s resort to the international, capital-intense corporations McKinsey & Company and Roland Berger Strategy Consultants rather than engaging German-based, low-key firms as they used to do up until the 1990s? What purposes did the different demeanors of the multinational versus the local firms fulfill for the requesting heads of administration and elected officials? The paper combines approaches from business history and history of technology to present new findings on a still opaque and understudied industry. The analysis is based on hitherto unexplored business and state archival material, parliamentary documents as well as interviews with retired management consultants. I argue that beside the continued promotional activities of management consultants, governmental crises made heads of administration prone to solicit commercial advice. Whereas technical skills and calculatory abilities rendered consulting firm attractive to administrative bodies until the 1970s, their legitimizing functions became all the more crucial from the 1980s onwards. International consulting firms represented the ideal type of an efficient organization that public clients hoped would endow their restrictive household policies with credibility. The earlier, genuinely German consulting tradition based in engineering came with a rather sober delivery that only partly satisfied public relations purposes of elected officials. The new spin doctors, however, soon provoked public resistance and a debate on commercial actors in politics.