The power of stories, or stories of power? Management consultants and education policy in New South Wales

Stream: Panel 93 - Public Policy & Social Justice: Education Policy 
Date: Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Time: 1.30 pm – 3.00 pm


The growth of the management consulting industry has been one of the great success stories of the last 30 years. As part of this growth, consultants have provided extensive advice to policymakers. While traditionally consultants have provided advice on operational matters (i.e. human resources, information technology systems, finance, etc.), they have increasingly been providing advice on matters of public policy. This phenomenon has led some to argue consultants have enormous power over their clients. Despite these arguments, the (limited) literature on consultants in public policy does not explore the extent to which consultants are able to exercise power directly over policymakers. Likewise, the role that knowledge plays in shaping the relationship between policymaker and consultant is not explored in any detail. This paper addresses this lacuna by exploring the role that three consultancies (PricewaterhouseCoopers, McKinsey & Co. and the Boston Consulting Group) played within the development of the New South Welsh ‘Local Schools, Local Decisions’ policy. The paper argues that the power of management consultants over policymakers is limited by the consultants’ ability to tell a compelling policy narrative. A policy narrative, I argue, is a knowledge claim about a particular policy problem; the relationship between the causes of that problem; and the effects of those causes vis-à-vis that problem. To be compelling, a policy narrative must (a) resonate with the perceived interests of its audience; (b) be plausible; and (c) be internally coherent. By ‘telling stories’, consultants use knowledge claims to exercise power over policymakers.


Martin Bortz (Presenter), School of Social and Political Science, University of Melbourne
Martin Bortz has an extensive background in public policy, as a researcher, practitioner and consultant. Currently, Martin is a PhD student in the School of Social and Political Science (University of Melbourne). His research here is focusing on the role of knowledge and expertise in public policy. His PhD is thus exploring the role of management consultants in the policy process.

Martin also works as a senior consultant for Urbis. Through this work, Martin has conducted a number of social research and evaluation projects for government and not-for-profit organisations.