As a commentator put it, Bjarne Corydon’s transfer from the Social Democrats to McKinsey was an unsurprising surprise. Many Danish politicians have moved from the world of party politics to that of interest organisation politics or semi-public boardrooms while shifts to private business has been more unusual, even if some politicians have made second careers (and large fortunes) in the corporate world. Moving from politics to an international business advisor like McKinsey, on the other hand, is virtually unheard of in Nordic politics.
On the other hand, Corydon and McKinsey in many ways appear like a perfect fit. First of all, it may be argued that Corydon’s main role was that of a policy advisor rather than politician. In fact, when Corydon attempted to present himself as a Social Democratic ideologue, the results were rarely less than cringeworthy. Notable examples were his defense of the neo-liberal post-welfare state, calls for higher levels of economic and social inequality and the claim that the Social Democrats had never been a party of the left. That the same Corydon also happened to be the man responsible for the formulation of the pre-2011 platforms “Fair Change” and “Fair Solution” only exposed the complete lack of any clear ideological base – even if we may argue that this was a major problem for the entire Danish Social Democratic party for the past decade.
Both formally and in real terms, Corydon’s role was always that of assistant to the party leader. As leader of the political staff of the Social Democratic parliamentary group,he was slated for a government portfolio in the Thorning Schmidt government, but everybody expected him in a position as direct aide to the prime minister with Henrik Sass Larsen taking on the difficult but politically central portfolio as Finance Minister. Events – to use Harold MacMillan’s phrase – put Corydon in charge of the Finance Ministry and forced him to develop a close political teamwork with the Social Liberal leader, Margrethe Vestager. And so Bjarne Corydon post-2011 emerged as a staunch defender of austerity in economic policies (thus following the ECB lead) and the continued expansion of New Public Management in public administration.
When it came to the application of NPM, it could be argued that Corydon in government was only following a tradition which had been established in the 1980s and grown evermore dominant after the turn of the century. As Finance Minister, Corydon’s lasting legacy turned out to be the school reform which was based on the abolition of any kind of self-governance in primary (and secondary) education in favour of a system of performance indicator-driven micro-management of teachers with school principals as the central agents in the implementation of national education policies.
In fact, management (meaning the implementation and monitoring of centrally defined performance indicators) was Corydon’s solution to any problem faced by the public sector. As such, the school reform and McKinsey was a match made in heaven and the implementation of the reform outsourced from the civil service to the international consulting business. And one of Corydon’s last major initiatives turned out to be the wholesale outsourcing of the development of a system of micro-management for the entire public sector from the Ministry of Finance to McKinsey.
With a bit of luck, Danish government ministries (and all other public agencies) will be reduced to agents of McKinsey in the years to come and what could be more obvious for the man who made these policies operational to change from the side implementing the policies to the side controlling them? Corydon’s reputation as a Very Serious Person on the political stage may also be of great help to McKinsey, despite – or because of – the lack of any normative core. The means have become the goal itself.