Explainer: The McKinsey controversy

McKinsey & Company, the elite management consulting firm, likes to keep a tight lid on its projects.

The discretion is, in part, about protecting its clients — some of the largest companies and mightiest governments in the world. But the firm also has to worry about its own reputation; McKinsey doesn’t want to be known for doing ethically dubious errands for the powerful.

Lately however, some of the company’s most sensitive work has won unwanted attention. A lawsuit filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey showed how it advised Purdue Pharma on boosting sales of Oxycontin and tamping down bad publicity around opioid overdoses. McKinsey’s consulting for authoritarian regimes in China and Saudi Arabia has drawn scrutiny. And the firm has been implicated in a huge scandal involving a South African energy company that led to the resignation of the country’s former president, Jacob Zuma.


Last week, the New York Times and ProPublica, the non-profit investigative journalism outfit, co-published a piece detailing McKinsey’s work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement — helping the federal agency execute President Trump’s controversial crackdown on illegal immigration and recommending that the agency spend less on food and medical care for migrants who have been detained.

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Here, in the first installment of a new Ideas feature explaining and contextualizing recent news that you may have missed: a look at the latest McKinsey controversy.

What did the New York Times/ProPublica investigation find?

McKinsey, first hired by the Obama administration to help with an “organizational transformation” of an ICE division, quickly pivoted to work on Trump’s immigration clampdown. The firm’s cost-cutting proposals — including reduced spending on food and medical care for migrants — made some career ICE employees uncomfortable.

“The consultants, three people who worked on the project said, seemed focused solely on cutting costs and speeding up deportations — actions whose success could be measured in numbers — with little acknowledgment that these policies affected thousands of human beings,” the Times and ProPublica reported.

The firm also worked with ICE to speed up the recruitment and hiring of immigration officers. Attempts to do so by previous administrations “ended badly,” the Times and ProPublica reported, resulting in “lax hiring standards” and “a subsequent spike in misconduct and corruption cases among Border Patrol officers.” Ultimately, budget constraints meant ICE hired only a fraction of the 10,000 new officers the president called for. And some of the McKinsey proposals that career ICE employees found most objectionable — like cutting spending on food and medicine — were never put into effect.


McKinsey has pushed back on the Times and ProPublica report, arguing that its efforts to speed up hiring and win lower prices for vendor services like health care was just a continuation of its work under Obama.

“As a firm,” McKinsey said, in a statement after the article was published, “we are committed to supporting the United States’ legacy of welcoming immigrants.”

What’s the fallout?

McKinsey’s work with ICE ended in July 2018, after an earlier Times report called attention to the contract. But shortly thereafter, the firm signed a contract with another federal agency involved in Trump’s immigration crackdown, Customs and Border Protection — inviting more of the scrutiny McKinsey so likes to avoid.

The bad press — on the ICE contract and previous work — is becoming something of a problem for Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic presidential hopeful who worked for the firm from June 2007 to March 2010. McKinsey was working for Purdue Pharma, one of the biggest drivers of the opioid epidemic, during that period. Buttigieg says he was unaware of that work at the time.

He’s made some oblique references to his own endeavors at McKinsey — saying he examined grocery pricing and traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq. But he says he’s unable to talk about his assignments in detail because of a non-disclosure agreement. His campaign says it has contacted McKinsey to explore whether he might be released from it.


But the New York Times editorial board and other critics have argued he needs to do more to shed light on his McKinsey tenure.