So You Want to Hire a Consultant?
You’ve got a specific need, lack in-house capacity, and have determined that hiring an outside consultant to work with your team is the best economic model. Now comes the hard part: choosing the right person.
As an information technology consultant who has worked with government agencies for 15 years, I am concerned about the process used to select a consultant. In the private sector, the process is simple because hiring decisions are based on a relation-ship model: I hire someone because I know he or she has done a good job for me in the past, or because I know that a particular consultant has done a good job for someone else.
The most effective—and legal—way to replicate this “relationship model” in the public sector is to place prime importance on a consultant’s references, during the evaluation and selection process. While the relationship model I will provide pertains specifically to hiring an individual, the same basic principles can be applied to selecting a vendor.
Public-Sector Challenges in Selecting a Consultant
Government agencies are faced with a selection process that requires free and open competition. Relying on the RFP (Request for Proposal), written documentation, and a team scoring process for selection, despite seeming fair, can lead to sub-optimal selection results and subsequent problems during the project. Below, I’ve outlined some of the common pitfalls and the way that implementing elements of a relationship model can help public agencies avoid potential problems.
- The most average consultant wins—not the best. Evaluation team scores are frequently just totaled and averaged, instead of being investigated (see Table 1). Behind the scores are impressions, concerns, and experiences that a number simply can’t express. Consultant B was the winner, but Consultant A was scored number one by three of the four evaluators. What did Evaluator 4 see or know? Understanding why one team member gave an applicant a dramatically higher or lower score in a given area can help the selection team refine goals, clarify stakeholder needs, and build consensus. Discussing these anomalies, and then re-scoring, can ensure that the “best” consultant is selected.
- But they said they could do it! You want to hire a consultant based on experience and proven success with your unique set of challenges. Experience and background are key factors, but any seasoned consultant can write a project plan that addresses an agency’s needs. Ask for references that emphasize relevant experience, not just aptitude or the potential to solve the agency’s problems.
- Knowing the right things—and doing them well. The selected consultant may have the technical skills required, but none of the people skills or management abilities to get the job done effectively. Again, talking with stakeholders from previous projects can help you find a consultant who will be able to communicate effectively and work as a part of your team.
- Expecting the unexpected. The written proposal only tells you how the consultant would run the project if nothing went wrong. Unfortunately, projects seldom run perfectly. For example, you may be hiring an individual, but have allowances been made on a long-term project for backup if the key consultant is unavailable or additional consultants are needed? You can’t foresee every situation. As a contingency, request in the RFP that the consultant provide backup and additional resource strategies. Talking with references is an efficient way of discovering how well the consultant dealt with these situations in the past.
Evaluating References to Build Relationship Models
Naturally, investigating references can add time to an already lengthy and complicated evaluation process. To streamline the procedure, clearly articulate your reference needs and goals in the RFP. Ask for current telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, as well as “best times to call.” Stipulate that the consultant provide the times and dates in which the reference is available for an interview. Have the applicant do your scheduling!
Plan to start interviews with references early in the evaluation process: don’t wait until the rest of the scoring is completed. Conduct telephone or video conference interviews as a team, not individually. If scheduling is difficult, submit a questionnaire via e-mail to each of the references.
Your goal is to efficiently develop a relationship assessment from references. Again, be very clear in the RFP about the project’s distinguishing features with regard to work environment, stakeholder needs, communication methods, time lines, and goals. You want to know that this consultant can do a good job for you because he or she has demonstrated success under similar circumstances in the past. In the RFP, ask for references who can attest to the consultant’s success in situations that shared key features.
Be sure to speak with representatives of every audience who will be impacted by the consultant’s work. For example, in an IT project, the stakeholders are the IT organization and the end-users who dealt with final results of the project. Asking the right questions (outlined in Table 2, below) can be the beginning of an enjoyable, and productive, relationship.
|Table 1 – Sample Evaluations of Consultants by Team Scoring|
|Further analysis should explore the reasons behind an evaluator’s scores to help public officials make informed decisions|
|Evaluator 1||Evaluator 2||Evaluator 3||Evaluator 4||Total Score|
|Table 2 – Reference Checklist|
|Sample Questions for Assesing the Relationship a Consultant has wih Clients and Customers|
David Sharon is represented by The Carrera Agency, a talent management agency serving the independent Information Technology (IT) consulting marketplace. Mr. Sharon specializes in IT strategic planning, project management, business/system process improvement, risk assessment, quality assurance, systems planning, and technology evaluation, selection, and deployment.
For more information about The Carrera Agency and David Sharon, visit www.thecarreraagency.com.