Even if the plan is to retain consultants through an open competition, there is nothing wrong in sitting down with prospective consultants in advance and working out with them what it is that eventual successful consultant will be expected to deliver as well as what that should cost.
Rather than going through the sometimes empty exercise of a so-called beauty parade, such advance discussion can be highly productive for both sides. They create the impression among the consultants concerned that their prospective client has a genuine concern for the bottom line.
In the meantime, they allow the prospective client to work out how easy it is to deal with each firm, and which seems most sincerely interested in adding value to the project.
That hands-on working experience is a far better guide to what the consultant can deliver than the almost empty exercise of asking prospective consultants to show that they have the training and experience to do the job. Developing a credible budget also allows the right mix of user department input with appropriate department review.
Clients have a right to expect that the consultant will bring a good deal of expertise to the table. This is not always the case. Nothing is more infuriating than so-called expert consultants whose only expertise is sending out a bill.
Too many consultants get hired and then go out to find the expertise.
Municipalities risk wasting vast sums of money on external consultants by not managing them tightly enough or using them when the work could be done just as effectively in-house. Consultants should be used within a clearly and tightly scoped context set out by the municipality. To permit the consultant to scope the project is to abdicate managerial responsibility.
If there is a specific question to answer, or a well-defined project you want undertaken, then consultants can be very useful in order to supplement resources and skills or to get an external perspective.
But if they take over strategic planning or program management then the risks associated with consulting begin to get out of hand. Always remember that the primary motivation for any outside contractor is to earn revenue for their company not to save the client money.
Consultants are usually expected to bring the benefit of prior experience to the table. It is important, however, to work out a clear understanding with prospective consultants in advance as to what will be borrowed and what will be new.
If a municipality pays a consultant engineer $300,000 to create unique specifications for a construction contract, it deserves better than a kindergarten exercise in cut-and-paste.
Precedents (i.e., prior work product) are almost certain to be used in any consultant work, but the expert consultant should be able to offer a client a range of different optional approaches and provide a realistic explanation as to why one approach is proposed in preference to another.
An RFP can allow the consultant’s prospective approach to be settled in advance.
When draft work is delivered for comment, compare what is being delivered to what was promised. If almost all of this early work appears to be a cut-and-paste exercise, and the promise was that it would be all new work, then the final report does not meet the requirements of the contract.
The managers of individual departments across the municipality administration will usually value a fair degree of independence in being allowed to hire the consultants whom they consider best suited to their needs.
Efforts to establish some form of central control or supervision over the process are almost certain to meet with such stock responses as “we have always done it that way.” Nevertheless, a failure to centralize can lead to the wastage of a great deal of public money.
Stephen Bauld is a government procurement expert and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of his columns may contain excerpts from The Municipal Procurement Handbook published by Butterworths.