Choosing an IT consultant
In 1972, Vancouver and Clark County, Wash., set up a joint agency to coordinate IT services for their governments. But by 1998, both the city and the county were dissatisfied with the level of customer service they were receiving from the agency. They decided to dissolve the joint agency, divide the staff and find ways to better meet their individual IT needs.
When the agency dissolved, Patrick Gilbride, information technology services manager for Vancouver, sought the help of Bellevue, Wash.-based Pacific Technologies, an IT consultant, to establish goals for the city. He wanted help in determining how IT resources were allocated in comparable cities, what services his staff needed to focus on, what services he should contract out and how much money the city should be spending on IT.
“The consultant conducted 120 interviews with focus groups, including the mayor, city council members and many different users; took a technology inventory; and did a gap analysis,” Gilbride says. “From there, we got a sense of where we were and how well we were meeting our users’ needs.”
The consultant helped the city create a five-year IT strategic plan that identified a work schedule, staffing requirements and a budget. Now, with a staff of 15, Gilbride’s department specializes in supporting computer applications for approximately 1,000 city employees, and it pays the county to provide help desk support, database and platform support, server hosting, and systems and programming services.
Because the consultant finished the evaluation and strategic plan on time and on budget, Gilbride had no reservations about using it again in 2000 to help select a vendor for a $4 million financial system. “Typically, I use consultants if there is lots of risk or if I need help with something I’ve never done before,” he says. “Four million dollars was the largest amount the city had ever spent on an IT project, so I thought it was worth it to spend money on a consultant to save money in the long run.”
Gilbride is not alone. Cities and counties are finding that IT consultants can play a valuable role meeting government technology needs. “Governments realize their expertise lies in governing, not in IT,” says Tinabeth Burton, vice president of communications for the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America (ITAA). “So it makes much more sense in many cases to seek an expert, an IT consultant.”
Faced with the demands of planning electronic government strategies, implementing enterprise resource planning systems, integrating networks and developing applications, IT departments are strained to meet the needs of employees who are dependent on technology to serve residents. That means they are willing to pay for a little help. In fact, Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Dataquest estimates that, by 2003, state and local governments will spend $17 billion on external IT services such as outsourcing network administration.
‘Know what you want’
The services that IT consultants provide vary widely. Some specialize in research and strategic planning, some in application integration, some in Web site design. For that reason, finding an IT consultant begins with understanding the scope of the work that needs to be done. “Know very clearly before you even send an RFP out what it is you want from a consultant,” says Tom Boardman, chief technology officer for San Diego County. “Understand what you’ve got and what you’re expecting, and communicate that as clearly as possible in the initial RFP. If you do that, then the vendors have the chance to, first of all, decide whether or not that’s something they can do and, second, form proposals that meet your needs.”
Before San Diego County outsourced all its IT services in 1999, staff members counted every piece of equipment and every computer application at each of the county’s 900 offices and determined the service levels required to keep the equipment running. Armed with that information, the county issued an RFP that provided as many specific details about all its IT needs as possible. “If you just send a general RFP out, then you will get people applying who don’t know what you’re expecting,” Boardman says. “More important, you’re going to get initial bids that aren’t connected to everything you want.”
The county signed a seven-year, $644 million contract with the Pennant Alliance, a four-vendor partnership led by Los Angeles-based Computer Sciences, and, so far, the partnership has met most of the service levels specified in the agreement. It has replaced 5,000 personal computers, 22,000 telephones, the wide area and local area networks, and in July, it began implementing an enterprise resource planning system that is slated for completion next year.
Surveying the field
Once cities and counties know what they need from a consultant, they have several ways to find candidates. In addition to advertising in newspapers and posting announcements on their Web sites, IT departments can tap the resources of professional organizations. The ITAA, for example, has approximately 500 member companies, and about 120 are active on its state and local committee.
Many local governments use Washington, D.C.-based Public Technology Inc., the technology research and development arm of the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities and the International City/County Managers Association, as a first contact when looking for consultants. “If we have a need for information and expertise, we typically start with PTI,” says Don Gloo, assistant to the city manager in Urbandale, Iowa.
In addition, Gloo can access the Iowa city manager listserv to ask other cities for advice. “You can send a question to all the city managers, and they all can respond,” Gloo says. “It’s a fantastic way to get information. You can get 15 answers to questions in five minutes.”
By contacting the Maryland Secretary of State Division of State Documents and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Barry Smith, IT director for Gaithersburg, Md., can find out which consultants have worked previously with other cities, counties or the state. And, if a company receives high marks on completed projects, he can contract with them without putting the job out for bids. “Why even bid it if [another city or county] says, ‘Oh, yeah. They’re great.’? I’m allowed by code to just use [them].”
Alternatively, keeping a roster of consultants saves time for Marty Chakoian, chief technology officer for Seattle, when he needs advice or labor. The city has established staff augmentation contracts and a list of consultants that allow Chakoian to use a variety of firms on a recurring basis without having to bid each project. The companies are divided into six areas of expertise. “We do an RFP once, and we establish contracts with the best companies for those six areas,” Chakoian says. “The competition, rate setting and costing are taken care of ahead of time, and it makes [finding a consultant] very, very quick.” The contracts are renewed and opened for new bids periodically.
Some cities do not have to work very hard to find consultants. Because San Francisco is a large city surrounded by technology companies, the city’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services receives 20 to 50 calls a day from companies offering their services. “Honestly, as soon as we start to work on something, word gets out and people start calling,” says Liza Lowery, executive director for the department. “Not every [city or county] has that luxury.”
Even with the deluge of offers of help, Lowery asks professional organizations and colleagues to recommend consultants, and she posts RFPs and requests for information on the city Web site. “You just ask around, you look around, and you develop your long list,” she says. “It’s worthwhile to go through some competitive process when you’re not sure who would be the best.”
The cream of the crop
After cities and counties gather proposals, they can begin the evaluation process. By interviewing candidates, local governments can gauge the consultants’ qualifications and find the best match for the project.
According to Gloo, experience is one of the most important considerations. “Very often a consultant has experience in the private sector, and then they come to local government and they try to sell you the same package or the same type of product, and, a lot of times, it just isn’t applicable,” he says. “[They] really need to have that local government knowledge to be able to help out with a local government problem.”
For that reason, Urbandale enlisted the help of PTI as a consultant when it took on the task of crafting an IT strategic plan in 2000. The organization assembled a four-person team of PTI staff members, a retired IT professional from Montgomery County, Md., and Gaithersburg’s Smith, who was chosen to provide a local government perspective from a similarly sized city.
The team held about 12 focus sessions with all the city’s IT users, and, after three days, it produced a strategic plan complete with a selection of best practices, a work schedule and a long-term outlook. “[The team members] didn’t just say, ‘You need to go out and do this.’ They said, ‘This is what some of the best run communities are doing; this is why they’re doing it; and for those reasons, we suggest you do it also,’” Gloo says.
Along with successful local government project experience, cities and counties can look at less quantifiable criteria, such as personality, when choosing an IT consultant. “Look for somebody who has very broad experience working with other organizations like yours in terms of style,” Chakoian says. “Seattle city government has a particular style, just like other government agencies might have a different style. We spend quite a bit of face-to-face time satisfying ourselves and our consulting company that they would be comfortable working with us and that we would be comfortable working with them.”
While style may not appear as criteria on the RFP, it is a quality that can be evaluated in interviews with the short list of candidates for a project. “If your organization is fairly laid back, informal and casual, and you bring in a white shirt-tie-Harvard-educated [consultant] who can’t get past that, you’re going to have a mismatch of cultures, and [your staff is] never going to hear what’s being said or be able to participate,” Lowery says. “I think the reverse is true, too. If [your staff is] a little more formal, and you bring in young kids with pierced noses, they’re not going to listen. People just can’t get past that.”
Staffing and payment are two other considerations cities and counties factor in when choosing IT consultants. If a local government is attracted to a consulting firm because of its expertise and reputation, it should try to ensure that, when work begins, experienced consultants will show up, Gilbride cautions. “Make sure you get the team that they propose,” he says. “I have heard of some consultants that may bait and switch. Specify in the contract that there should not be any substitutions unless you both agree to the changes.”
Also, local governments should agree on a fixed price that will be paid only when the work is finished, particularly when the time needed to complete tasks can vary, according to Lowery. San Francisco began using PTI as a consultant to help in the city’s transition to an enterprise IT organization in August, and Lowery made sure she would not be paying for someone to churn hours. “When we started discussions, we went right to deliverable-based contracting, and they were wonderful and did it,” she says. “But there are consultants who just hate that.”
Likewise, Boardman says payment upon task or project completion gives consultants every reason to finish as quickly as possible. “It is amazing how much payment influences behavior,” Boardman says.
During the first year of San Diego County’s contract with its consultant, there were many small tasks that needed to be completed that were tied to payment. “Some of the incentives for finishing those tasks early were in the tens of thousands of dollars: $22,000, $44,000,” Boardman says. “You’d think in the context of a $600 million deal, those numbers wouldn’t mean anything. [The consultant] made every single one of them where there was a dollar attached to it. Even small money changes behavior.”
In the end, choosing an IT consultant is much like choosing any employee, Smith says. Experience, creativity, reliability, honesty, personality and a fair price are factors to consider.
“[Selecting consultants] is a big deal,” Smith says. “If you pick wrong, it could set your other projects back. Consultants are very valuable. You need to use them; you need to find their role in your organization. But you need to choose wisely.”