Consultants and Policy
BY TOMEK JANKOWSKI
In 1861, the Lincoln administration faced a di- lemma. A major continent-wide war was about to erupt, and the Union intended to utilize the many miles of railroad tracks for transport of both soldiers and supplies—a revolutionary and innovative
use of transportation.
But there was a problem. While railroads had sprung
up all over the Union in the years before the Civil
War, they were mostly very local affairs, designed to
get the goods of local industries to ports or to connect
canals. There was no national railroad system, though
rails criss-crossed the nation. Each rail company used
a different gauge—the distance between rails. The Lincoln Administration worked with railroad companies to
adopt and support the 4 feet & 8. 5 inch rail gauge, creating today’s standard for the U.S. and Canada. Railroads
went on to play a decisive role in the Civil War.
Government regulation of new technologies is controversial but nothing new. The need for a standard national railroad gauge is a pretty straightforward concept
that anyone can grasp. But what about more complex
new technologies that impact people’s lives?
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before
Congress earlier this year in April, and the world was
treated to the scene of him having to explain Facebook’s
business model and social media to policy-makers who
had come of age before personal computers were in-
vented. And then there was the infamous example in
2006 of Senator Ted Stevens, commenting on the con-
cept of net neutrality, who described the internet as “a
series of tubes.”
There’s much to be argued about how our policy
makers prepare for their votes on technology-related is-
sues, but does the technology industry or the business
world bear some responsibility for keeping policy mak-
ers apprised of new advances in technology? If so, does
that include consultants, who are often the ones to help
businesses and governments adapt these new technolo-
gies? Consultants have always had an uneasy relation-
ship with governments.
We live in an age of accelerated change, where every-
body—governments, individuals, businesses, academia,
and even the technology sector itself—all struggle to
keep up with the rapid pace of change. The economic
and social dislocation this change can reap often pro-
vides the impetus for government regulatory interven-
tion in markets. Data is a prime example, with the Euro-
pean Union’s recent General Data Protection Regulation
a prime example (and the US’ relatively laissez-faire
attitude towards data forming a dramatic counterpoint).
So should the business and technology world take on
the job of keeping policy-makers informed? In some re-
spects they already do. Policy-makers often reach out to
industry experts, business leaders, academia etc. for in-
formation. But these are sporadic instances, usually only
focused on a single, narrow issue.
And consultants have been working with governments
in almost unprecedented volumes in recent years, particularly in the English-speaking world. This has drawn
the ire of some political watch groups. But consultants
also tend to work on tactical, targeted projects for governments, not policy matters. And there are real con-flict-of-interest issues that make any advisory option
dangerous, if not unlikely.
Like it or not, governments play a key role in economies and society. And policy making rightfully belongs
in the hands of elected officials. In the (first) Industrial
Revolution, change took years, even decades to unfold.
But the pace of change today and its propensity for serious disruption demands awareness and understanding
of the prime drivers of that change. There are whole
categories of jobs being created today whose underlying technology did not exist just a few years ago. Given
that in a democracy, the policy makers grappling with
all of this are by definition amateurs, shouldn’t there
be some level of engagement between those creating
this new technology world—including the consultants
who help them strategize and operationalize it—and
the policy makers whose decisions may fundamentally
reshape future markets?
Tomek Jankowski is a Senior Analyst, Management
Consulting Research for ALM Intelligence