Mr. Doctoroff contends that the Bloomberg administration uses plenty of other consultants. Indeed, many of the most lucrative contracts are for mundane traffic analyses or—God help us—rerouting school buses. Of the 14 economic-development studies that were outsourced since 2002, McKinsey has conducted just two of them. But, given the high price tag of PlaNYC, the firm has earned $2.05 million since the Bloomberg administration came into office in 2002, which is more than any other single strategic-consulting firm has received from the E.D.C.
More to the point, McKinsey tends to do the biggest of the big-think pieces, whether for a fee or pro bono. Troubleshooting the city’s emergency response led to a $17 million makeover of the Fire Department’s operations center. The $700,000 school study, underwritten by the Broad Foundation and the Robertson Foundation, provided the research for the city to distill 38 different school districts into 10 regional ones.
And that’s exactly the type of big thinking that McKinsey prides itself on. Founded in 1926, McKinsey was reinvented in the middle of the century by a man named Marvin Bower, who turned it from an accounting firm into an executive’s best friend. For a long time, McKinsey was so concerned with the big picture that it shunned providing industry specialists.
Now McKinsey appears like a cross between a business and a secret society. It doesn’t advertise itself—a spokesman refused to comment for this story—and yet manages to market itself admirably. Like the Masons, McKinsey alums pop up everywhere and form a lasting fraternity that can benefit their members admirably throughout their careers.
Slowly, McKinsey has developed a public-sector consulting practice. But, in some cases, their experts in private-sector industries, such as energy, can do double duty in advising governments how to manage the environment, as they did with PlaNYC.
But city officials dispel the notion that McKinsey’s help has set public policy, preferring instead the notion that it has informed it.
“They did not issue recommendations,” said Michele Cahill, a former senior education-policy advisor who worked with McKinsey on the school restructuring. “But they were very good at doing presentations: Should we keep this piece of it or that, and what are the consequences?”
Mr. Doctoroff said that the team didn’t play a role in setting policy on congestion pricing; the Mayor did that, he said. But McKinsey did do a lot of the research that the recommendation was based upon.
“They synthesized the district-by-district profiles, by Assembly district and community boards,” he said, “and they analyzed the census data to show how people actually got to work from each one of those.”
The conclusion is one of the more striking arguments in favor of Mr. Bloomberg’s plan: A mere 4.6 percent of New Yorkers who commute to Manhattan for work do so by car.
“They were integral to our analysis,” Mr. Doctoroff said.