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The Consultant Conundrum: When to Hire One and Why

Gisele Parry shares her expertise on when to hire consultants and how to manage them once onboard.

Patsy Lynch/FEMA
A water treatment consultant shows a FEMA representative aerial maps of Fargo, N.D. Photo courtesy of Patsy Lynch/FEMA.
Patsy Lynch/FEMA
Many organizations struggle with hiring consultants. Gisele Parry is a principal consultant and deputy division manager of business development for Beck Disaster Recovery. Parry has supported dozens of federal, state and local organizations with their emergency management and homeland security efforts. Here she shares her expertise on when to hire an individual or firm and the best way to manage the consultant team when it's been hired.
Question: You have been a consultant in the field of emergency management and homeland security for 12 years. Do you have a sense for how the field of consulting has changed over the years?

Answer: Emergency management consulting has changed dramatically since 9/11. Federal grant funding has allowed state and local governments to expand their emergency management capabilities, which in turn has created a market for emergency management consulting firms.
In the future, I see emergency management consulting becoming more product-based as emergency management agencies establish foundational elements of planning and preparedness, and start focusing on how to use technology to maintain and sustain their preparedness efforts.
When a jurisdiction or agency is thinking about the need for hiring a consultant, what advice would you give it about when it’s best to do the work itself or hire a consultant?
A jurisdiction or agency should hire a consultant once it has a clear end goal in mind. Consultants have trouble successfully completing a job when the client does not have a clear definition of success. The consultant can develop the project approach and provide advice on technical matters, but in the end the client has to know what they want and what is best for their organization or jurisdiction.
What is the difference between a request for proposal (RFP) and a request for qualifications (RFQ)?
A request for proposal (RFP) usually requires a combination of qualifications (demonstration of experience and past performance), a technical approach (how the consulting firm will accomplish the required deliverables), and an estimated price. A request for qualifications (RFQ) usually requires only a demonstration of past performance.

We also often see requests for information (RFI). This is a good method for organizations that are unclear about how to address a problem and simply want ideas on potential solutions. The organization may also request that responders provide thoughts on how much it would cost to implement their proposed solution. The organization can then use this information to develop a grant application, budget request and RFP.
You have responded to hundreds of RFPs. What are some of the common mistakes that organizations make when they put together a RFP?
The hardest RFPs to respond to are the ones in which the client does not clearly describe what they want. In the end it becomes difficult for the organization to evaluate the proposals because there are too many variables and approaches to compare. Good RFPs describe the deliverables anticipated; list the type of contract (fixed price, time and materials, or cost plus fee); specify variables that might affect costs (for example, number of participants for an exercise or meeting); and establish a time frame for completing the project.
Sometimes organizations put a limit on the length that a proposal can be, yet ask for lots of information. What advice would you give to someone putting an RFP together —limit the proposal’s length or let it be open ended, and why?
Writing a proposal is similar to writing an emergency plan — short and to the point is better than long and too detailed. Good consultants know that most proposal evaluators are emergency managers with other issues demanding their attention and thus it is better to write a more succinct proposal.

Having a preset page limit means that evaluators might not get to review an important capability that the proposing firm excluded due to page limitations. Proposing firms understand that producing lengthy proposals does not score them more points and can even be detrimental to their offer. I recommend not setting a page limit. Instead, include in the proposal directions that concise proposals are recommended.

As a consultant, what do you expect from the organization that has hired your firm once the contract is in place?
Good consultants are just that — consultants, not decision-makers. Good consultants provide advice. They take the client’s vision and make it come to life. Consulting firms need a project sponsor who has a clear vision of success and who is available to answer questions and make decisions.
One of the issues consultants experience is that the customer asks for a product in the RFP, but after hiring the consultant wants changes to the contract. How does this happen and what do you do when it does happen?
Given that it can be months between the time an RFP is released and the time of award, we often see changes in the scope of work. Hopefully the jurisdiction or agency has chosen a consulting firm that has the breadth and depth of expertise to support the revised scope of work. Assuming this is the case, a change in scope can be a relatively simple matter depending upon the jurisdiction’s or organization’s procurement rules. During contract negotiations, jurisdictions or organizations should review changes to the scope of work with the consultant and anticipate that the firm will have to revise their price proposal.

It is also common for the scope of work to change after the project has begun. Often it is only after the project has begun that the client and consultant discover a better approach. If the scope of work is changed after the project has begun, a contract modification should be issued to reflect the change in scope. The consultant can provide the contracting organization with a revised approach and pricing. The organization or jurisdiction should work closely with their procurement agency to ensure that the contract modification is reviewed and implemented correctly.
For larger contracts it sometimes requires a primary consulting company and some subconsultants from other firms to have the entire skill set necessary. Is there a “magic number” of subconsultants that you don’t want to exceed so that the project doesn’t become unmanageable?
If the primary consulting firm (usually called the “prime”) has a skilled project management team and appropriate project management processes, then having a prime with subconsultants is not a bad idea. Many large mission support contracts require numerous skills sets. For these projects, it might be more cost-effective for consulting firms to combine their expertise instead of having one firm retain the expertise and infrastructure to support the entire scope of work.
It is more important to determine whether the consulting firms have a successful history of working together and to ensure the firms have defined roles and responsibilities. Jurisdictions or organizations can request in their RFP that the contractor define their project management approach, provide a history of working with the subconsultants, and explain the role the subconsultants will have on the project.

There is an advantage to a consulting firm in getting a sole-source contract from an organization. What advantage comes to the jurisdiction or agency, if any, if they chose to do a sole-source contract?
Sole-source contracts are beneficial when time is limited or if the project is a continuation of a previous effort. Competitive procurement processes can take months or even years. If the jurisdiction or agency is confident that the firm they want to award the work to can do the job, then a sole-source contract might allow the jurisdiction or agency to meet a deadline or fill an immediate need without the expense and delay of a competitive procurement process.
If the shoe was on the other foot and you are now someone who’s looking to hire a consulting company, what things would you do to have a successful outcome?
Have a clear idea of what you want the consultant to achieve for you. Be realistic about the outcomes that can be achieved for the funding and time available. Identify a person to provide direction to the consultant. Make sure this person understands that being accessible to the consultant is their responsibility. Also clarify what types of decisions that person has the authority to make regarding project deliverables and the contract. For example, can that person decide to change the scope of work or funding levels?

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.