Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai contractors
Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai

Yes … these ones are holding swords, but please read on.

The title image is from Kurosawa’s famous film, “The Seven Samurai”, which tells the story of a farming community regularly pillaged by a marauding gang of crop-thieves during a period of broken government in Japan.

Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven translated Kurosawa’s epic into English, translocated it to America’s west, and populated it with lantern-jawed hat-wearing horse-riding straight-spitting shirt-clad gun-toting hard-men. See closing image.

In both films, after no amount of appeasement appeased the thugs the timid villages sought help from – you guessed it – hired guns, err swords.

The term “hired gun” is now a metaphor for consultants; those with sometimes narrow but deep expertise engaged to carry out a specific task, such as provide advice, by those without the ability or inclination to do it themselves.

Consultants have been in the news a fair bit lately.

The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported on concerns that the NSW government increasingly prefers consultant advice to that of its own public service. This trend has generated alarm, not just at the ballooning cost but the purpose of their engagement. The suspicion is that consultants are employed merely to confirm what governments want to hear, often to endorse the advice of political staff in preference to the more objective commentary of career public servants.

In NSW, the largest reported user of consultants was Transport for NSW, which spent almost half a billion dollars on urban infrastructure advice for projects such as WestConnex and Sydney Metro North West.

But how and where do consultants fit within the constellation of interests that affect our urban lives?

Our cities as advisory battlegrounds

The shaping of our cities seems to be an advisory battleground. Expert traffic and economic projections were features of the recent part-sale of WestConnex. Transport advice is often at the heart of the mode wars; disputes between those preferring urban road or rail projects. Detailed planning commentary sustains whole advisory businesses. Individual development projects usually depend on small armies of specialist planning, design, building, structural, financial, legal and marketing advisors. Pollsters regularly plumb our views on all of this.

Urban economies of great scale and scope are able to sustain very specialised consultancies that offer expertise simply not available within client organisations. This is a positive feature because it means that urban decisions can be very well founded. Broadly, “hired guns” assist urban inhabitants to be better informed, accommodated and productive.

Consultants can also be engaged to perform distasteful tasks or deliver unpopular recommendations. Many will recall the George Clooney character in Up In The Air, who travelled across America dispensing “downsizing” notices to employees of organisations that were too gutless to sack their workers face-to-face. In a more sinister vein, “consultant” is now a synonym for hired killer, as depicted in the title image.

However, we are concerned here with the more subtle features referenced in the Sydney Morning Herald article.

Sometimes, expert consultants are engaged because they also possess cachet with which clients seek to be imbued, particularly that of independence; of possessing arms-length incorruptibility unaffected by partisan interests.

This notion of independence is intriguing. It references a signature quality that undergirds modern democratic government; the independence inherent in the separation of powers.

This independence possesses two important features. Firstly, it has formal expression in the separation of representational government from judicial and enforcement institutions. Secondly, this independence is typically exercised only after laws and policies are adopted, not beforehand.

In contrast, independent consultant advice to government is often intimately entangled in political processes and mainly precedes formal government decision-making.

The illusion of independence

So, the attraction of “independent advice” is that it can wash politically motivated urban projects clean of partisan stains, certifying them as the only sensible way forward.

Indeed, maintaining the illusion of independence is an essential but delicate task for both consultants and government.

Too much independence means a government may not get the advice it wants and the consultant will not be hired again.

Too little and the consultant is seen as a government glove puppet and the authority conveyed by independent expertise bleeds away.

Balancing these two tendencies means that governments must tightly control consultancy advice – but must not be seen to do so. A bit like tangoing porcupines, it is a relationship that must be carefully danced.

But how did all this occur?

As greater numbers of voters reside in cities, and as their per capita wealth increases compared with those in the regions, urban management decisions increasingly become important philosophical and electoral differentiators – and where new votes lie.

Charting pathways to power

Thus, the left might favour investment in mass transport and conservatives in driving as congruent with ideologies of individual freedom. As a result, competing urban projects can be calibrated against electoral sympathies to chart a pathway to power. All the better if projects can be delivered within the life of government.

Calls for more orderly allocation of infrastructure priorities, such as from the outgoing head of Infrastructure Australia, are therefore likely to be ignored.

By these means, cities gradually cease to be engines of community development – of equal access to a fair go – becoming instead physical expressions of urban winners and losers.

As an aside, politicisation of urban infrastructure decisions has parallels in other endeavours. The Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliason regrets what he sees as increasing use of culture as a political tool at the expense of its capacity to build communities and shared values. Of course both practices have ancient precedents; recall Roman stadia construction and the staging of games to distract a restless populace.

The overarching relationship between consultants and government is mutually beneficial.  The Herald article notes that the NSW government has spent record sums on consultants. No sane consultancy would turn up its nose at such opportunity.

These conditions partly explain why consultancies are displacing the public service as the source of advice to government decision makers.  A non-partisan public service may have, as its name suggests, the general public as its primary concern, but is of little use to political parties seeking to obtain and retain power with promises of urban projects that may prove after analysis to be questionable.

In this context, consultancies unfortunately appear to be conspiracies against the public, to adapt Shaw’s epigram.

It is important to note here there no suggestion that consultants as a class mislead or offer anything other than the very best advice they are engaged to provide.

What is significant is by whom and how they are engaged, briefed and managed.

It is beyond the ability of most agencies other than government to assemble and pay for the depth and breadth of expertise needed to deliver most city-shaping projects.

This points to an imbalance in the way politically inflected city-shaping advice is received by the broader community, which is frequently left merely to protest ineffectively against projects that have simply gone too far to change.  Meaningful community input becomes a farce, but delivery agencies can at least tick the “community consultation” box.

Maybe a new model: community driven consultancies

It is worth remembering, however, that governments do not monopolise all advisors at any one time. What if the same breadth and depth of advice could be assembled from this extra capacity on behalf of affected communities?

The authors of “New Power”, one of whom helped to start the activist group GetUp!, chart recent changes in the way power and influence is exercised in our hyper-connected world. If power hitherto has been centralised, resident in institutions, and immutable, the rise of social media has enabled new forms of organisation, participation and knowledge distribution to develop.

Power from these new relationships has very different characteristics. They are more than better ways to protest; they include the malignly effective recruiting of Daesh, the rapid and positive social changes generated by the #MeToo movement, and the ambiguous motivational miracles seen in many recent elections.

The intriguing proposition here is to wonder if similar methods directed by urban citizens – rather than governments – could marshal a city’s spare consultant capacity to generate detailed and well informed city shaping propositions to rival those delivered by governments and their institutional servants.

Hmmm, I wonder if it would result in more road tunnel proposals to the Northern Beaches in preference to new rail links, which the NSW government is reportedly not exploring…?

John Sturges’s Magnificent seven (1960)

Post Script

Lest wild-eyed gun-loving nut-jobs see these films as endorsing armed vigilantism, it should be remembered that in the closing scenes the surviving combatants reflected on “what’s next”.

Having jointly triumphed with their weapons over organised villainy, the youngest of the three elected a future amongst the farmers he helped defend. The other two rode off into the sunset – and oblivion.

It seems that in art, as in life, a decent future with long-term prosperity resides in peaceful purposeful collective activity under the re-established rule of democratically defined law.

The real lesson conveyed is the fundamental importance of developing and maintaining responsive and responsible governance of our collective interests – our cities no less.

Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.

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  1. Like I said previously Mike, your fine writing deserves a wider audience – and by a long shot too.

    I do not wish to remind you again that the intellectually-starved out there are most appreciative of what you think and how you say it, so you have continuing responsibilities there!

    Time to assume the role of top Oz Urban Commentator Here – OUCH for short.

    Many regards.