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Procurement Perspectives: Municipal officials accountable for a consultant’s work

Stephen Bauld
Procurement Perspectives: Municipal officials accountable for a consultant’s work

The same factors which gave rise to difficulty in drawing up appropriate specifications for professional consultants, and for defining the type of deliverables that should be produced by the consultant who is hired, manifest themselves again when it comes to the evaluation of the work done.

Unless a client knows what ‘good work’ looks like, how can a client assess the work that has been done? The relationship between consultants and their clients is characterized by a considerable asymmetry of information. In this type of relationship, the client is unable accurately to evaluate the quality of the service or advice purchased.

As a result, evaluation of the quality of work done tends to be haphazard and generalized, and in addition overly influenced by the nature of the personal relationship that develops between the consultant and the manager of client’s department. Put simply, consultants are difficult to manage, primarily because the quality of work that they usually are doing is difficult to assess. Worsening the situation is that there is no guarantee that a municipality will necessarily get the specific consultant whom they are paying for, even when the municipality does offer to pay the consultant his or her normal hourly rate.

Although it is generally difficult for a lay client to monitor the quality of professional work, there are some common-sense steps that can be taken to protect the municipality’s interest. One basic step is to hold regular status meetings with the consultant (it is generally cheaper to visit the consultant’s office) to discuss the progress of work on the file, at which (for instance) the responsible manager may ask for an outline of the steps that have been taken.

If the project requires research, inspect the work that is submitted for some evidence of research. In the case of secondary research, such evidence might include references to or questions from texts, articles and other published sources. In the case of primary research, such evidence might include references to interviews, focus group meetings and the like.

If the project involves the preparation of some design, the manager might ask to look at some drafts, in order to gain an idea of the overall approach that the consultant is taking. Where the work to be done involves case work of some kind, the project (and contract) should incorporate some kind of case-tracking system which allows the manager to keep track of the volume of incoming cases dealt with and the time spent on them, to determine the level of client satisfaction, and to analyze other relevant statistical data.

The critical point to note here is that hiring a consultant does not relieve the in-house manager of the responsibility for the work that is to be done, or for the quality of the work that is done. On an internal project, the manager is held accountable for the success of the project. There is no reason to apply any other standard when dealing with work by consultants — subject, of course, to reservation that the manager cannot be expected to second-guess the professional’s opinion.

To discard this function, the manager should compare any draft or final work submitted to the specification that was set in the RFP for the consultant’s contract. It is also necessary to look at the report that is delivered to determine whether it appears to conform to the deliverables that were specified in the RFP.

As the project is progressing, you must continue to ask questions to determine the current state of the work. The manager should work out some sort of formal quality assurance check which can be applied at the end of every agreed milestone.

Where a partial payment is to be made at a milestone, the manager should confirm that the criteria for payment have been satisfied.

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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