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Procurement Perspectives: Contractors question ‘disappearing experts’

Stephen Bauld
Procurement Perspectives: Contractors question ‘disappearing experts’

It has been a concern from the construction industry for many years in relation to the people municipalities are hiring as consultants for construction-related projects.

The questions revolve around the expertise of the consultants that are being hired to oversee the procurement of construction documents, tenders and RFPs.

The problem I have seen over the years that is the most troublesome aspect of consultancy in procurement of construction is the problem of the disappearing expert.

At the government level, some consultants sell their services by drawing on the evident expertise of their top partners.

However, there are obvious limits to what any one partner can do in terms of actual consultancy work, particularly if the individual concerned spends much of his or her time marketing.

Thus, even though the price for a consulting contract is usually based on the assumption that a high level partner will be responsible for the work, in reality the work is more likely to be done by low level junior staff who may have no more expertise than the members of the city’s own staff.

For instance, some consultant firms often promise work will be carried out by the consultant who has a national or international reputation.

However, when the work is actually done, it is performed by staff who are far less experienced and who are often working with minimal supervision. This is why contractors complain when poor decisions are made related to multimillion dollar contracts.

Problems of this kind are even more likely to arise when the municipality has sought to fix a fee or cap the hourly cost of consulting services in advance.

“Surely,” the intended consultant will tell the client, “you would have understood that they could not work full-time on a file where the billing rate was capped at $250 per hour.”

In cases of this nature, the consultant perhaps may have a point. It is otherwise where market rates are being charged and the prospect of securing the services of the expert consultant in question was the very reason for selecting the firm that was chosen.

In such cases, the municipality is the victim of what is essentially a bait and switch. One method of avoiding problems of this nature is to settle before the retainer is placed on which consultants will work on the file, and the estimated number of hours they are each prepared to commit to the file.

Most experts at firms of this nature are usually people who possess what are politely described as “high level business skills.” These can include such important contributions as genuine expertise at strategic thinking as well as systems analysis.

In hiring consultants it is necessary to exercise due diligence. If people are experts, then they have most likely published in a field.

Find out if there is a specialist trade association for people who practise in a given field and confirm the “expert” is a member of that association. Ask where the partners have delivered presentations at continuing professional education programs.

There is no reason not to ask to be provided with extracts from those publications. Indeed, doing so will offer some guidance both as to the views they are likely to put forward and what the final report will look like.

It is also wise to confirm the consultant’s publications are consistent with the type of opinion he or she is being asked to provide. It is always possible to ask for a description of very similar assignments that have been carried out in the past.

Obtain the names of the responsible officials at the client organization for whom the work was done and contact them. By doing some simple homework on the consultant’s you hire may give the contractors more confidence in the overall process.

Stephen Bauld is a government procurement expert and can be reached at swbauld@purchasingci.com.

Some of his columns may contain excerpts from The Municipal Procurement Handbook published by Butterworths.

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