Is working with planning consultants one of your key responsibilities at the office? Do you want to know how to work more effectively with consultants? If yes, I want to recommend the book Working with Planning Consultants (2013) to you. I recently finished reading it (while on jury duty!) and found it very helpful. The author, Eric Damian Kelly, is an experienced city planner and attorney who is a professor of urban planning at Ball State University and a vice president of Duncan Associates, a planning firm based in Austin, Texas. His book covers topics such as: should we hire a consultant; what should be the process of selecting a consultant; what the RFP (request for proposal) should include; what are the legal considerations and insurance requirements of working with consultants; and how to manage a project. In this article, I would like to share what I consider to be the highlights of the book.
It is a Relationship
The main theme that is apparent throughout the book is that a contract with a planning consultant is a relationship. This may be obvious to some, but having worked as a consultant previously, I have seen firsthand how some municipal planners fail to understand this: instead, they think that they are always right and/or consider consultants to be subordinates or inferiors. As we all know, success in any relationship requires respect, commitment, and effort by all parties. A good consulting relationship depends equally on a good client. Thus, the report not only focuses on how to identify good consultants, it also explains how a contracting agency can be a good client. This is important as those of us who are public sector planners may not think much about our role and responsibilities in the consulting relationship. The emphasis is usually on the consultant and how s/he is or is not meeting the needs of the agency and the requirements of the consulting contract or agreement.
Two-Part Selection Process
A public agency can make the selection process more efficient and effective for both itself and the consultants by using a “two-part RFQ-RFP process.” Essentially, this means that an agency uses an RFQ (request for qualifications) process without interviews to identify a “short list” of consultants to be invited to submit full project proposals. This process is intended to build on the strengths of both the RFQ and the RFP. An agency should make RFQs available to every consulting firm that might be interested in the project. Submitting a statement of qualifications (SOQ) is less expensive and less work-intensive for consultants; I know because I had to put together SOQs and full proposals before when I worked for a consulting firm! Consultants will typically respond to an RFQ if they are interested in a project and if they have the expertise to perform the work. Likewise, for public agencies, it requires far less time and effort to review SOQs than full proposals. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to serve on a consultant selection panel for a partnering agency. While it was a good experience, I must say that it was very tedious and exhausting to review just six proposals!
Personable is good, but qualifications matter more
While going through the selection process, we may be very impressed by how some consultants present themselves and/or how personable they are. But when it comes down to it, their qualifications are what really matter. I am in complete agreement with Kelly when he says, “no matter how personable a consultant’s representative may be, if that consultant lacks basic qualifications, the firm should be eliminated from consideration” (p. 37). For most type of projects, it is critical to hire a consultant with experience on similar projects. When a study or project is especially distinctive, it may be appropriate to hire a consultant who has had experience with similar but not identical projects in the past. For example, for the Community Parks and Recreation Plans project that I am currently managing and have previously mentioned (see Parks and Recreation: Not Just Fun and Games), we realized that it was a rather unique project and ultimately hired a consultant who had experience with similar projects.
Value vs. Cost
As we should all know, cheaper is not always better. Value is a much better basis than cost when we consider the financial aspect of the process. Like most goods, the lowest initial price of services does not represent the best value and the lowest hourly rate may not yield the lowest overall cost. I agree with Kelly that what we really should be concerned about is getting the best deal for the available budget. This can be quantified to some extent by measuring the relative levels of competing consultants against their respective cost proposals. Part of the value issue is the intangible or less quantifiable one of quality. To get a sense of the value of a certain consultant’s work, we must check references. (This means checking some references that the consultant did not list, but are shown on the consultant’s project list.) We also need to be aware that some consultants consistently underestimate the costs of projects, using very limited scopes of work. They may start work and then demand contract amendments, with extra compensation, for essential work items.
Once we have decided on a consultant firm, it is critical that we work with its project manager to develop a detailed project schedule. As I have learned over the years, this is one of the most useful tools to successfully manage a project. As Kelly points out, a good schedule should list the following: all tasks and sub-tasks to be performed; milestones; completion dates; review times, meeting times, and deadlines for completion of various deliverables. Such a schedule lets both the consultant and the agency know what is to occur and when. It also allows the agency’s project manager to monitor whether appropriate progress is being made on the project. In addition to showing the time schedules that the consultant must meet, the schedule needs to also detail the agency’s responsibilities and deadlines. For example, if the consultant is required to deliver a draft report and then a revised final report within a certain time period, it can only do so if the agency provides prompt comments on the draft. Thus, the agency’s project manager must not only focus on the consultant’s schedule, s/he must also plan adequately to meet the agency’s obligations under the consulting agreement or contract.
Communication is key
Communication is key to any relationship. Project managers for the agency and the consultant must communicate regularly and effectively. According to the book, good communcations include: prompt feedback on work submitted for review; candid feedback on work that may not meet the agency’s expectations; prompt replies to telephone, e-mail, and other requests from the consultant; links to or copies of relevant materials (e.g. newspaper articles, reports etc.) that may affect the project; updated briefings before major public meetings; and informal feedback after such meetings. As a project manager, I try to do all of the above and find that by doing so, it has helped me to develop a good working relationship with my counterpart at the consulting firm. I am also reminded by Kelly that one of my key responsibilities as a project manager is to compile and reconcile all staff comments on work products and then submit them to the consultant as a set. This is very important because one of the greatest frustrations for consultants is the receipt of conflicting and/or contradictory feedback on project deliverables.
Working with Planning Consultants is a good resource for all planners to have, especially those in the public sector. The book is uniquely written by a planner for planners and offers useful examples of an agreement for consulting services, a scope of services, and an evaluation form for selecting consultants. I also like the “Review List” at the end of each chapter which makes it easy to remember and follow up on the key points. I have only shared the highlights above and I suggest that you read the book in its entirety for more information and explanation. Also, while Kelly’s report contains a chapter on “Managing the Project” (Chapter 6). I recommend that my fellow planners also read Project Management for Planners: A Practical Guide (2002) for more insights on the topic; my review of that book is available here.
Book cover from American Planning Association (APA) Store