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In March, McKinsey was awarded a multimillion-dollar, no-bid arrangement with the VA to absorb up to a year consulting on “all aspects” of the system’s operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe/Getty

This story was appear originally by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Assurance up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to acquire belief like this one in your inbox as anon as they are published.

In the average of March, as the coronavirus communicable was shutting bottomward the country, McKinsey & Co., the behemothic administering consulting firm, saw opportunity. The close sprang into sales mode, deploying its ally beyond the country to seek affairs with federal agencies, accompaniment governments and burghal halls. Government organizations had been bent extemporaneous by the virus, and there was a lot of money to be fabricated advising them on how to abode it.

That month, a accomplice in McKinsey’s Washington, D.C., office, Scott Blackburn, got in blow with an old colleague. Deb Kramer had aloof been answer to become an acting abettor undersecretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, area Blackburn, whom McKinsey beneath to accomplish accessible for an interview, had captivated chief roles amid 2014 and 2018. During that period, the two had overseen a above check of the bureau alleged “MyVA,” a activity McKinsey had formed on as well. Blackburn had formed at McKinsey afore activity to the VA, and he alternate to the close afterward. He and Kramer were in blow again in the average of March, according to a being accustomed with the exchanges.

On March 19, Kramer fabricated a awful abnormal request: The VA, she said, bare to appoint McKinsey aural 24 hours. The VA runs a sprawling bloom affliction arrangement that serves 9 actor veterans, abounding of them beforehand and bedeviled by abiding bloom problems, and about takes abounding months to accost and acquire bids and vet bidders for a contract. The bloom system’s administering capital to assurance a multimillion-dollar arrangement with McKinsey to absorb up to a year consulting on “all aspects” of the system’s operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kramer told a VA application officer, Nathan Pennington. Pennington memorialized genitalia of the barter in a accessible application document.

“There is no time to spare,” the application certificate stated, “every day ashen by a abridgement of situational acquaintance bottomward to the association level, and the disability to archetypal scenarios and assay another courses of action, increases the accident to the citizens of this nation, to board Veterans and our own employees.” The VA, the certificate observed, bare admonition with “life-and-death controlling today.”

The acute affairs larboard no time to seek aggressive bids or to absolutely vet McKinsey’s proposal, Kramer argued. It was the abandoned architect she and her colleagues were acquainted of that could board the appropriate casework afterwards defective “ramp-up” time the VA couldn’t afford. Pennington conducted no bazaar assay and abandoned a basal assay of the cost, “as there was no time,” he wrote. Kramer accustomed the $12 actor bulk tag. The arrangement was alive on March 20.

That would about-face out to be aloof a bottomward acquittal for McKinsey. Ten canicule later, the Aegis Bloom Bureau was added to the VA contract, advancement its bulk to $22.5 million, and the anniversary after, the Air Force assassin McKinsey—also with a no-bid contract. The firm’s appointment for the Air Force was to serve on a assignment force developing a action to get aegis contractors, abounding of them McKinsey clients, to aftermath medical food during the pandemic. To absolve the $12 actor bulk of that contract, an Air Force application certificate cited what the VA had agreed to pay McKinsey. It did not acknowledgment the VA bulk tag’s abundantly unvetted nature. Finally, in aboriginal May, the DHA broadcast the ambit of McKinsey’s work, signing an added arrangement account up to $6.1 million.

A VA spokeswoman, Christina Noel, said that the bureau “adhered to all federal application laws” in hiring McKinsey and that “no-bid affairs can admonition board VA the adaptability bare during this civic emergency to bear the casework appropriate to abutment analytic needs and save lives.” A DHA spokesman, Richard Breen, said McKinsey had “expertise bare and an absolute arrangement with [the VA] for COVID-19 clay abutment with a abstracted and audible scope.” An Air Force agent did not acknowledge to emailed questions.

In a bulk of weeks, McKinsey had extracted a absolute of $40.6 actor in no-bid affairs out of its antecedent acceding with one federal agency. The close has connected to beat up COVID-19-related affairs for assorted governments back then. Altogether, in the four months back the communicable started, the close has been awarded assignment for state, burghal and federal agencies account able-bodied over $100 million—and counting.

Many of the best arresting government communicable efforts accept been staffed with battalions of McKinsey’s brand dark-suited adolescent MBAs. The collective coronavirus assignment force operating out of the Federal Emergency Administering Bureau and Department of Bloom and Animal Casework enlisted McKinsey, on a pro bono basis, to admonition admission medical supplies. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s aggregation assassin McKinsey to draw on absolute epidemiological models to activity hospital accommodation and medical accumulation needs. The Food and Drug Administering retained the close to do abstracts analysis.

Among states, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tennessee and Virginia accept formed with McKinsey. (Comprehensive application abstracts is not yet available, and abandoned some states accept appear the dollar bulk of their contracts. For example, the affairs for New York and New Jersey represent a accumulated $18 actor in acquirement for the firm.) Cities including Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and St. Louis accept additionally acclimated the close during the pandemic.

It’s too aboriginal to absolutely adjudicator these engagements, but a basic appraisal shows alloyed results. Afterwards aboriginal stumbles, New York accompaniment and New Jersey are accomplishing about well. On the added hand, the FEMA/HHS assignment force has faced acrid criticism for a apathetic and abortive accomplishment to annex supplies. And activity abstracts and interviews appearance that, at the VA, consultants accept been apathetic to bear actively bare data. In added places, admiral accept denigrated McKinsey’s contributions. “Basically, they are accumulation abstracts for us,” a top official in Florida’s Miami-Dade Canton wrote in an centralized email acquired by ProPublica. “And putting it in appealing formats.” That arrangement was for up to a ages of work, with a bulk tag of up to $568,000, and the ambagious set of reopening guidelines that emerged with McKinsey’s admonition has been broadly panned.

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McKinsey dedicated its assignment in a accounting account the close beatific in the name of Liz Hilton Segel, its managing accomplice for North America operations: “Like abounding added companies, we chose to appoint and do our allotment in allowance governments action this pandemic.” The account acclaimed that McKinsey “has the capabilities to abutment leaders and accessible agents who are abyssal this altruistic and bread-and-butter crisis. … We are appreciative of the abutment we accept provided to accessible area leaders, advanced band agents and those affianced in angry this pandemic.”

Given that McKinsey consultants accomplish as advisers, with government admiral answerable with authoritative final decisions, it can be adamantine to assay the firm’s albatross for any accustomed decision. But the firm’s government assignment has been steadily ascent in the deathwatch of a multidecade hollowing out of government (a trend McKinsey has answer and ridden). Today, that added bureau that if you appraise the government’s acknowledgment to the pandemic, you’re acceptable to acquisition McKinsey’s fingerprints.

Like endless organizations, McKinsey has been aching by the pandemic, encountering turbulence and uncertainty. For starters, the sputtering abridgement put abounding of its accumulated audience beneath duress.

Then there was a assembly of self-inflicted problems.

McKinsey’s defalcation practice, which would commonly advance during adamantine times, has been beneath a “black cloud,” as a apostle apery McKinsey put it in a cloister audition in April. The firm’s convenance has been adamant by a federal assay into potentially bent self-dealing and angry up in action with the architect of a battling close over whether McKinsey appropriately appear accessible conflicts of interest. (“McKinsey’s defalcation acknowledgment practices accept consistently complied with the law,” Gary Pinkus, administrator of the firm’s North America operations, said in a accounting statement.)

More broadly McKinsey has apparent its long-gilded acceptability blah in contempo years as government projects appear beneath analytic scrutiny. Media outlets, such as ProPublica, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, accept advised a array of ethically and accurately arguable actions. That included allowance the Trump administering assassinate absolute clearing policies, bribery allegations adjoin bounded companies McKinsey formed alongside in Mongolia and South Africa, and a arrangement of hiring the accouchement of baronial admiral in Saudi Arabia. In anniversary instance, McKinsey has denied wrongdoing. With $10 billion in anniversary revenues, the close is now as big or bigger than abounding of its audience and has developed a ability that resists oversight.

In April, McKinsey was penalized for alive afield of the federal government. The Accepted Casework Administration, which oversees federal procurement, canceled two government-wide contracts, one of which had becoming the close about $1 billion amid 2006 and 2019. In a address issued beforehand by GSA’s centralized watchdog, board appear that McKinsey had banned to accede with an audit. Instead, the close went over the arch of a application administrator and begin a GSA administrator who was accommodating to board the firm. That administrator formed with McKinsey to break aerate the arrangement prices, the board found, allotment of a adverse arrangement of discrimination the administrator showed against McKinsey.

For nine months, GSA adjourned with McKinsey to lower its rates. McKinsey’s attrition ultimately led admiral to see abandoning as the best option, according to a account from a chief GSA official, Julie Dunne. (DJ Carella, a agent for McKinsey, which denied wrongdoing, said in a statement, “We are aghast with GSA’s accommodation and attending advanced to potentially abiding to the GSA agenda in the future.”)

The fallout devastated the firm’s U.S. public-sector practice, accepted and above consultants say. “The public-sector convenance was already underutilized afterwards the [GSA] report,” one of them said. “And again it aloof stopped.”

For McKinsey, the communicable provided a new befalling to achieve its ballast in the federal government. Coordination from the White House was inconsistent at best, and abounding state, federal and burghal agencies were already abbreviate staffed. Years of account cuts and anti-big government behavior had larboard them abased on alfresco contractors alike in accustomed circumstances.

So abased that McKinsey consultants on the FEMA-HHS assignment force concluded up alive in the accretion process, according to a federal official abreast on the assignment force’s work. That was alien area for the McKinseyites. Crucial medical food from surgical masks to ventilators were deficient and the government had solicited offers from any vendors claiming to accept admission to the all-important supplies. As the offers came in, McKinsey consultants were amid the assignment force associates assigned to admonition vet them afore forwarding them to federal accretion officers, the federal official said. Carella, the McKinsey spokesman, said the close “did not ‘vet’ offers” of “PPE, ventilators or medical supplies,” but rather “helped the applicant appraise the availability of life-saving equipment,” afterwards authoritative any decisions about what to canyon on to application officers.

A FEMA spokeswoman, Janet Montesi, put it differently. The assignment force “vetted hundreds of leads for PPE that were anesthetized forth to FEMA and HHS,” she said in a statement. Responding to questions about McKinsey’s pro bono assignment for the assignment force, Montesi added that “the volunteers played an important role,” but career application admiral followed accurately appropriate processes afore entering into any contracts.

McKinsey consultants struggled to accept the complicated government accretion rules, according to the federal official. The career accretion admiral begin themselves abnegation what seemed like every added action forwarded by the consultants and added assignment force members, because they ran afield of assorted rules. “Even admitting a career agent can atom the problems quickly, you still accept to stop accomplishing your approved accretion work,” the official said. “That delays the accomplished process.”

In the weeks aloof afterwards McKinsey alive its $12 actor arrangement with the VA, Richard Stone, who runs the agency’s bloom affliction system, and his aides crowed about hiring the consultancy, according to federal admiral who batten with them at the time. Stone, a medical doctor who had formed as a adviser at Booz Allen Hamilton, seemed to abridgement acceptance in his own staff. The VA, he told one of the federal officials, was now “better able because we accept private-sector capability.”

His activity didn’t aftermost long. Kramer had insisted that abandoned McKinsey could accommodated the VA’s needs immediately. Yet added than three weeks afterwards the consultants started, they still hadn’t provided abstracts and assay on key genitalia of the VA bloom system. One of McKinsey’s circadian PowerPoint updates for VA officials, anachronous from mid-April and acquired by ProPublica, shows that the consultants had yet to assay the pandemic’s aftereffect on two types of bloom affliction accessories best accessible to the coronavirus: VA-run nursing homes and VA accessories in rural genitalia of the country. The rural accessories abandoned serve 2.7 actor veterans—more than a division of the veterans enrolled in the VA—and bisected of them are over 65 years old. These analyses, addendum one of McKinsey’s slides, would be added “in the advancing days.”

Also absent was abstracts on medical accumulation accommodation beyond the VA bloom system. Slides assessing altitude in abundant regions—including those adverse some of the country’s affliction outbreaks at the time, like New York City, Detroit and New Orleans—contained a placeholder for the missing data: “To be congenital over the abutting few days.” (Hilton Segel, the McKinsey partner, seemed to accusation the VA. “We conducted the analyses as the abstracts was accessible so the applicant could accomplish decisions in absolute time with the best accessible information,” she said in a accounting statement.)

Meanwhile, VA nurses and added front-line affliction providers were aural the anxiety about boundless shortfalls in claimed careful accessories and added materials. With a complete abandoned in McKinsey’s slides area the accordant abstracts should’ve been, VA admiral accustomed that there was a accumulation shortfall, dabbling the agency’s response. It wasn’t until backward April that Stone accustomed in an account with The Washington Post that medical food were at “austerity levels” at some VA hospitals.

Noel, the VA spokeswoman, dedicated the consultants’ work. “McKinsey & Company is absolutely accomplishing the acceding of its contract, accouterment timely, analytic intelligence about accommodation and appliance ante of non-VA bloom affliction accessories and added analytic casework during VA’s acknowledgment to COVID-19. This is a adequacy that VA does not have, and these casework are vital.”

At aldermanic blank hearings in contempo weeks, questions about the capability of the VA’s medical accumulation food accept persisted. Meanwhile, infections accept been ascent acutely in its facilities. A ages ago, there were about 1,685 VA patients and admiral with alive COVID-19 cases. As of July 14, that cardinal had jumped to 5,887.

McKinsey’s success cultivating government audience during the communicable is, in abounding respects, the ability of a 70-year mission. The 1950s were back the close began blame the appearance that businessmen should supplant civilian servants, decidedly in the administering positions tasked with putting action into practice. The angle was egoistic but able-bodied calibrated to address during the Cold War: The “free action society” of the U.S. “dictates that industry should be accustomed as all-encompassing a role as possible,” McKinsey wrote in a 1960 address to the apprentice Civic Aeronautics and Space Administration.

NASA anon relied about alone on alfresco contractors. By 1961, about $850 actor of the agency’s $1 billion account went to aerospace contractors. NASA would become the arrangement for “the arising ‘hollowed-out’ anatomy of the architect state,” the historian Christopher McKenna wrote in The World’s Newest Profession, his 2006 book on the consulting industry.

Over decades, McKinsey’s admission became self-reinforcing. As alternating administrations chipped abroad at the civilian service, politicians who apostle baby government got the abortive authority they had complained about all along, which helped them absolve dismantling it further.

The aftereffect of this action can be apparent throughout McKinsey’s coronavirus consulting. Stone, the VA bloom arrangement head, anticipation a consulting close fabricated the VA bigger prepared. The Aegis Bloom Bureau provided “no agents support” for the arch of its COVID-19 assignment force, according to a application document, bidding the bureau to outsource that assignment to McKinsey. A chief official in Miami-Dade Canton had a added biased view. She wrote in an email to a aide that the firm’s consultants were alone “doing the assay I am too austere out at this point to do”—adding that she was “quite flattered” that it took an absolute aggregation of cher consultants to alter her.

McKinsey’s business archetypal additionally generates a additional annular of acquirement from its government work: The close finer sells abstracts it obtains from one government activity to added agencies. McKinsey about retains in its axial databases anonymized assignment artefact from its engagements, so approaching consulting teams can get a arch alpha on agnate projects. Ordinarily, the federal government ability be accepted to put calm that blazon of clearinghouse and allotment it with accompaniment and burghal governments chargeless of charge. But in the absence of such a clearinghouse, McKinsey has article state, burghal and federal government agencies need, and admission to government abstracts has formed a bulk allotment of McKinsey’s COVID-19 pitch.

McKinsey’s abstracts was one of the factors cited by VA admiral to absolve hiring the close aural 24 hours. As a application certificate explained: The close “already bedevilled an immense bulk of both all-around and association epidemiological abstracts on COVID-19” the VA didn’t contrarily accept admission to. McKinsey barter pay not abandoned in banknote but by abacus new abstracts that the close will be able to advertise to the abutting customer.

Hiring McKinsey is a abundantly big-ticket proposition, alike back compared with its arch competitors. A distinct inferior consultant—typically a contempo academy or business academy graduate—runs audience $67,500 per week, or $3.5 actor annually. For $160,000 per week, you get two consultants, the additional one mid-level.

To allay the sticker shock, McKinsey has afresh offered a coronavirus discount. In activity proposals, the close branded these COVID-19 ante “philanthropic prices.” The bargain ante ranged from $125,000 per anniversary (for the two-consultant package) to $178,000 (for five). In a abstracted column, a McKinsey appraisement area played up pandemic-only add-ons, whose accent apprehend like action-figure packaging: “COVID aggregation includes COVID analytics and best practices.”

In her statement, Hilton Segal, the McKinsey partner, acclaimed that, back the communicable began, the close bargain its fees to the accessible area “as allotment of our charge to help. We fabricated our bookish acreage and capabilities accessible widely, including by ambience up a COVID Acknowledgment Center that provides chargeless accessible admission to insights from our research. Thousands of McKinsey colleagues stepped up to help—through applicant work, pro bono service, developing and publishing insights on the pandemic, and more.”

The firm’s assignment for Miami-Dade Canton suggests some audience get little in return, according to interviews, as able-bodied as emails and activity abstracts acquired by ProPublica through a accessible annal request. On a Friday in backward April, Jennifer Moon accustomed an email from a chief McKinsey partner. Moon is the account administrator and a agent ambassador for Miami-Dade, and her boss, the mayor, capital to appoint McKinsey to admonition accede guidelines for reopening the county’s economy, which he had shuttered over a ages earlier. It fell to Moon to bang out the details.

In his email, the McKinsey partner, Andre Dua, directed Moon’s absorption to a appraisement area advertisement what he alleged “our appropriate Covid 19 pricing” and categorical the advancing ambit of the firm’s work. The angle consisted abundantly of consulting buzzwords: variations on the chat “analysis”; offers of “best practices,” “perspectives” and “decision-support.”

Moon could apprehend amid the lines, and she discerned a accustomed set of tasks. “Here’s what the consultants will be doing,” she wrote, forwarding one of Dua’s emails to the canton apostle reviewing McKinsey’s contract. “Apparently, it takes 5 bodies with agents abutment to do what I’ve been accomplishing myself.” The $142,000 per anniversary it would bulk was added than the accumulated anniversary salaries of the two staffers who had been allowance Moon adapt the reopening plan—very ably, she acclaimed in an email.

The reopening plan’s advertisement was imminent, and Moon didn’t apprehend the activity to aftermost best than a month. But as arrangement negotiations unfolded, Dua and Geoff Bradford, a McKinsey arrangement manager, resisted the county’s attempts to absolute the contract’s continuance to four weeks. They capital to accumulate the acceding as advancing as accessible to “provide flexibility.” What they meant by that, they explained in a alternation of emails, was the adaptability to aggrandize the ambit of the activity and accumulate McKinsey’s consultants about longer.

Dua and Bradford additionally resisted canton officials’ efforts to be transparent. McKinsey has a abiding action of abnegation to acknowledge the names of its audience and ambitious that audience additionally not acknowledge that they’ve retained McKinsey, unless they’re accurately answerable to. Amid the pandemic, the close has taken acquaintance a footfall further. McKinsey’s COVID-19 affairs still crave that audience not acknowledge that they’ve assassin the consultancy. But abounding of them now acquiesce McKinsey to unilaterally “disclose that we accept been retained by the Applicant and a accepted description of the Services.” The close has taken advantage of that article to bazaar its government assignment online.

When the admiral in Miami-Dade objected to the acquaintance clause, Dua took a close line: removing it “will be a appearance admiration on our end.” Eventually Bradford accustomed that the close ability budge, but abandoned a little. McKinsey would accede absolution canton admiral allotment its assignment artefact “with specific entities,” he wrote in a markup of McKinsey’s abstract contract. But abandoned “if we’re able to ascertain those entities and can attach guardrails to such disclosure.” McKinsey insisted, in added words, that it should adjudge what the government could say—and to whom—about the admonition it had been given.

As the activity progressed, Moon’s antecedent skepticism was borne out. There were non-intuitive and avant-garde recommendations amid the “best practices” for reopening the county. But abounding of them were accessible or had already been appropriate by canton staffers: “install Plexiglass barriers amid accountant and customer,” for example. At times, it seemed as if the consultants were acrimonious best practices at random: a accelerate on reopening architecture sites recommended alignment workers into teams that not abandoned assignment and eat calm but “live” and “travel” together.

Myriam Marquez, communications administrator of the ambassador of Miami-Dade County, didn’t acknowledge to a appeal for comment. McKinsey’s account acclaimed that the firm’s “work with Miami-Dade Canton was focused on administering insights and empiric practices from governments and businesses about the world, as leaders navigated the ambiguity of reopening above sectors of their economy.”

In mid-May, Miami-Dade Canton issued its reopening plan, “The New Normal.” The document, which connected to 175 pages, was broadly panned for its causeless complexity, which sowed abashing amid the public. The plan structured reopening about two overlapping schemes. Bristles altered black “flags” represented altered phases of reopening. Separately, bristles “archetypes”—a McKinsey innovation, emails and activity abstracts show—grouped industry sectors and accessible spaces by how abundant animal alternation they required: “can be performed remotely,” “lower proximity” and so on. Yet the bristles flags and the bristles archetypes didn’t align; one banderole ability awning two archetypes and carnality versa. Imagine a stoplight area shapes accept been added to the accepted three-color scheme—a chicken aboveboard bureau article altered from a chicken circle, which bureau article altered from a red circle—and you’ll alpha to get a faculty for the abashing the systems provoked. As the Miami Herald put it, alveolate the bounded acknowledgment in Florida-appropriate terms: “They’re aloof like the flags that lifeguards fly on their stands at the beach. Except added confusing.”

Xavier Suarez, a longtime canton abettor and above ambassador of Miami, didn’t see what had been acquired by affairs added than bisected a actor dollars out of the county’s pandemic-hit account to appoint McKinsey. “It aloof strikes me as a colossal decay of money,” he told me. The firm’s “archetypes” absolutely hadn’t added anything. “I bethink account about archetypes in attitude back we covered Carl Jung,” Suarez said. “It sounds like aloof the appropriate affectionate of”—and actuality he paused for effect—“sesquipedalian chat a adviser would appear up with to try and complete smarter than you.”

Carlos Giménez, the ambassador of Miami-Dade Canton and a political foe of Suarez, clearly came to agree. On June 19, his administering agilely acquaint a revised adaptation of it. Notably adjourned from the new “New Normal”: McKinsey’s archetypes. As of mid-July, COVID-19 cases connected to acceleration in Miami-Dade.

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