By Douglas Moran
Mismanagement of ConsultantsUploaded: Mar 21, 2015
City Hall's use of consultants receives lots of deserved criticism, but that criticism is typically so generic and unfocused that it fails to provide any basis for improvement?factual or political.
In discussion of "consultants", many people think of management consultants who analyze a corporation's organization structure, processes or strategy and produced recommendations for restructuring, leaving it to others to implement those recommendations and cope with the consequences. Most of the consultants hired by City Hall are better thought of as contract workers, but many of the problems made infamous by management consultants apply to them as well.
A very valid use of consultants/contract-workers is when they provide expertise and capabilities that are needed too sporadically to maintain in-house, especially when a team is needed, not just separate individual workers. For example, take the Caltrans/El Camino Redesign Study (2003-2006) where City Hall was the lead agency and I served on the Citizens Advisory Panel. We had a very good team of consultants. They had a sophisticated, nuanced understanding of the complex, often counter-intuitive, aspects of traffic flow, and I learned a lot from them. They had the tools and people to collect detailed statistics for the many intersections along El Camino, and sophisticated software to analyze it. Furthermore, the consultants showed that analysis, which included simulations, first to the citizens panel and then a public workshop asking how well it matched our experiences and intuitions.
This sounds great until one realizes that I had to reach back a decade to find a positive experience to report. Most of my experiences with the City's consultants have been ones of intense frustration. The City Council meeting of last November 10 produced a particularly disturbing example. The City Manager requested approval of a $175,000 contract with specific consultant to support the Our Palo Alto program, but was unable to say what tasks this consultant was needed for, other than generic communicating. This met with some disquiet from some Council members?not enough in my opinion?and the contract was cut to a "mere" $75,000.(foot#1) If City Hall hadn't thought through what a consultant was needed for, how could they judge whether that particular consultant was a good fit? And wasn't City Hall undercutting itself contractually if the consultant fails to perform?
A recent typical example of City Hall's mismanagement of consultants was displayed by the consulting firm handling the update of the Parks, Trails, Open Space and Recreation Master Plan. I attended one of the "community workshops" in late October (10/29 at Cubberley). Although the consultants seemed to have put a lot of work into the presentation, they weren't well-prepared. Most significantly, they asked us to give our impressions of a series of pictures of parks and open space, but many of the selections were irrelevant to the situation here?they were more appropriate for other areas of the country. Several of us commented that these were parks for places where land was cheap and water was plentiful and cheap, if not free (rain). Several of the examples were what I would call "formal/landscaping parks", ones where you expect to see signs such as "Keep off the grass" or "Keep to the path". One was a largely paved plaza that covered at least an acre and was surrounded by tall buildings (the lack of balconies suggested they were office towers).
The consultants' examples elicited several comments that clearly surprised them. The most significant of these was for the examples showing play areas for children: Several of those play areas were appropriate for only a narrow age range of children, and some weren't designed to provide real opportunities for parents to socialize while still supervising their children. I was surprised that they were surprised: I learned the importance of these aspects two decades ago during the renovations of the parks in my neighborhood from the City Staff member managing those projects (Kate Rooney, since retired). Good design provided modest separation for the different age groups, without impeding a parent's ability to supervise children in the different groups.
There is an obvious financial advantage to the consultant in making the same presentation in Palo Alto, Seattle, the exurbs of Denver? But that is no excuse for City Hall allowing it to happen. First, willingness/ability to customize presentations for local circumstances should be part of the selection process.(foot#2) Second, there are multiple opportunities for presentations to be reviewed and revised before they are inflicted on the general public: City Staff, typically multiple meetings of citizens advisory panels, and commission hearings. These routine failures in oversight are sometimes failures of these groups to provide adequate direction, and sometimes City Hall deciding that keeping to the schedule is much more important than getting it right, or more accurately, getting it "good-enough". In my experience, the latter is disturbingly frequent.
Failure to provide local information
Sometimes the failure of the consultants to adapt their work to local conditions is not the result of them taking shortcuts, but rather the failure of City Hall to provide that information to the consultants, both at the beginning of the work and as the work progresses. Because many on Staff are unfamiliar with local conditions much beyond the area around City Hall, this may require the involvement of relevant residents.(foot#3)
Consultants are infamous for being used to provide supposedly independent support for a decision that has already been made. Here we routinely see it in reports on traffic that are transparent nonsense, either in the analysis itself or the selection bias.
Some consultants are seemingly hired strictly for appearances, including reasons such as vanity, keeping-up-with-the-Jones, checking-the-box? A recent example of this was For the Love of Palo Alto by Peter Kageyama. He was here in Palo Alto for at least 3 days, attending the State of the City Address (Wednesday 2/18), making a presentation to Council members and others the next day, and a 3-hour public workshop the day after that. The workshop announcement had provided a link to an 18-minute TEDx talk, which was nothing more than an inspirational speech in the category "You can do this too!"
Having watched the video, I was worried that the workshop would be little more than a bloated version of that TEDx talk. I raised this question with a member of City Staff?forget whom?at the reception after the State of the City Address, and was told that she had attended a version of the workshop in another city and it had lots of useful content. Wrong. So very, very wrong. It was a series of small stories, enthusiastically presented, with the message "Great things will happen if you just let them!" Few of the examples were relevant to the situation in Palo Alto?many of them intrinsically involved large city downtowns along river fronts and similar situations. During the breaks, I asked the speaker about the impediments that a city such as Palo Alto faces in advancing his recommendations, and he seemed to have no advice. I then mentioned to him what I thought were some of the problems, but again that generated nothing.
Break-out groups?formal or informal?are a common feature of public outreach meetings, and the consulting firm provides one of their members to staff each group. Sometimes that "consultant" is a clerical employee who is simply there to take notes. But too often that person is introduced as having professional credentials, but is unable to function as more than a clerical worker. Sometimes that is because the professional has no knowledge of the project beyond what has just been presented at that meeting, and thus is less knowledgeable than half the residents in the group. Sometimes those professionals are so junior that their knowledge of the subject matter is limited to textbook orthodoxy, and thus they can't answer even modest questions posed by residents. But then there could be a degree of "stonewalling": not answering technical questions that could open up bigger questions about the consultant's work and recommendation.
What "walks out the door"
Some of the basic questions that need to be asked and answered in hiring a consultant are
1. "What knowledge, skills, and experience walks out the door with the consultant when the contract is over?"(foot#4)
2. "What ? developed during the contract do we need to retain?"
3. "How are we going to accomplish/ensure that?"
Example: Improving emergency preparedness (E-prep) was a major issue when the current City Manager began his tenure. He hired a consultant that he had worked with before to interview the major participants?Staff and residents?and produce a report. First, the key portion of that report?status and recommendations?could have been readily produced by any of several of the key participants based on what they already knew, and without the need to conduct interviews, or even circulating a draft for comments and suggestions. Second, this was the sort of report that a manager should be able to produce as part of his normal duties, and should not be something farmed out to a consultant. Third, if the interviews were deemed desirable or necessary, a responsible member of permanent Staff should have participated: to ask questions, to hear and retain the nuances of the responses, and to gain experience.(foot#5)
It is very difficult for an outsider such as me to make specific statements about how well City Hall is doing this, but I see little of what I would expect if this were a major concern (and the warning "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" doesn't seem very applicable in this situation).
So what advice do you have to help residents more effectively assess and critique City Hall's hiring of consultants? Mine are that City Hall's proposals need to provide:
1. A clear statement of what tasks the consultant will perform, and why City Hall needs to hire a consultant to do this.
2. The qualifications needed of the consultant. The skills and knowledge that they will bring to the job.
3. What, if any, skills and knowledge will be lost when the contract is completed, and a justification for that loss.
4. Resources to appropriately manage the consultants and their work, especially localization for our specific needs and situations.
Please don't suggest that City Hall hire a management consultant to recommend the hiring of a consultant to manage the other consultants.
---- Footnotes ----
1. Nov 10 Council approval of consultant: The background on this item can be found in a news article from before the Council meeting: City seeks outreach help for Our Palo Alto initiative: Consultant to help city distribute data, solicit feedback, PA Online, 2014-10-23. The Council discussion on this contract is in the latter part of a subsequent story on a contract given to a similar consultant: Consultant hired to help Palo Alto with social-media updates: City approves $160,000 to support outreach efforts, PA Online, 2014-12-12.
2. On customizing presentations: I worked as a "consultant"?contract R&D?for 16 years. One of our basic directives was to customize our presentations for the potential client from the very first contact. Not only did it help establish credibility with the clients?demonstrating respect and interest in their problems?but it also often elicited information from them that helped us better understand their problems and thereby produce better proposals.
3. Staff's unfamiliarity with much of town: Common saying "Staff thinks that you need a passport to go south of Oregon Expressway."
Relevant residents: I have been to too many public outreach events?workshops and citizens advisory panels?where Staff treated input from residents who were clearly unfamiliar with the area in question on par with those who were intimately familiar with it. This indicated that the meeting was simply a "checkbox" activity, and the input would be cherry-picked or ignored.
Even worse, I have been to public outreach where Staff deliberately created these situations, for example, randomly assigning residents to break-out groups and then asking for input that required detailed knowledge of a specific area of the city.
4. What goes "out the door" with a consultant is of particular concern at commercial companies because that consultant may soon be at a major competitor, either as a consultant or an employee.
One of the routine complaints is that the consultants seem to benefit much more from the contracts than the companies hiring them. Aside: You tend to hear this objection from middle managers. Too many CEOs seem unconcerned about about this. But then these were the same type of CEO who handed over the "crown jewels" of their company's intellectual property to Chinese companies and then were "shocked! shocked!" that piracy occurred.
5. E-prep report: For the terminally curious: I prepared for the interview and went in with written talking-points/responses to the questions the consultant had distributed in advance (nice). Extrapolate from that to what tens of other interviewees told the consultant, and then look at the resulting Staff Report, the key portion of which is four pages long (labeled pages 8-11, but pages 11-14 in the PDF because of the cover letter). I also had Comments to City Council on what I thought had been inadequately covered in the report.
The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.
I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.