3 Seeking relevant information
Once you have a reasonably clear idea of what you are looking for and have identified potential consultants, you may need to find out more about them before you can choose. Ideally, you will gather information from as many sources as possible, and, as with any such information, evaluate its reliability and relevance to your particular context. The clearer you are about the nature of the intervention that you require, and the key features of the context in which this will occur, the better placed you will be to select an appropriate provider. I asked my previous informant what information she sought. She said:
My list of questions would include:
Can they do the task as described and do they add something extra beyond my own staff?
Can they listen as well as talk?
Can they write well?
Will they fit into the organisational culture? If not, can they be adapted or will I need to find a ‘bridge'?
Are their presentation skills good enough to be convincing in front of the most senior levels of civil servants and politicians, and can they adapt to presenting to a range of different levels?
Is the team (often it is a team) of the right mix, and is there other expert back-up if necessary?
Are they local enough that they can attend regular meetings, indeed can they be based at desks on my site? If not, have they good electronic links?
Consultants reply to an invitation to tender (ITT). Then there is a ‘beauty contest’. Trying new consultants is perceived as high risk – indeed my organisation now actively encourages use of consultants who have previously worked with us. The ITT is not necessarily a competition. In the past I have forced 2 or 3 consultancy proposals to be combined in order to gain the combined skills.
Within sensible limits, price is not very relevant. Quality and value for money is key. And all work has to be done on time. The Civil Service works to serious deadlines, at least in the policy-making areas. For example, if a Minister is committed to giving a speech then the text has to be ready beforehand.
(Senior civil servant, quoted previously)
Clark (1995) quotes four surveys of clients on reasons for choosing consultants. Prior experience of the consultancy and/or the consultants concerned and the reputation of the consultant and/or consultancy were top of the lists in all four cases. Given the difficulties in judging a service provider beforehand, this is not at all surprising. As suggested earlier, a diagnostic assignment which is felt to have gone well may be a powerful factor in determining who gets the subsequent contract.
There are two further factors on which you may require information: the models underpinning the consultancy activity and fees charged. These are important enough to be considered separately.