The Friendly Faceoff: Wise Ways To Choose And Use Consultants

Hiring consultants can be a working partnership - or a battle of wills. Planning, communication and setting clear goals can vastly improve this time-consuming process, where shortcutting can lead to failure. A Request for Proposal (RFP) or Request for Qualification (RFQ) is key to building a harmonious relationship between consultant and client.

To develop the most effective RFP/RFQ, solid waste managers first should approach a variety of consultants at both national and single-person firms for feedback. Upon reviewing the request, the consultants can assemble a multi-discipline team to address the desired tasks.

Ideally, the consultant and client will form a symbiotic relationship, drawing upon mutual communication and honesty. "You have to have a relationship," said Richard Tagore-Erwin of R.W. Beck, Phoenix. "You need to know why [the client is] doing the project, what the project is about and who's going to win and lose from getting this project done."

Tagore-Erwin begins building a relationship with his client before the RFP/RFQ process begins. For one of his customers, the process took more than two years before the first project became a reality. "We started talking with them five years ago," he said. "They got to know us and we got to know them."

To activate the project, the client must specify the project's boundaries. Sharon Maves, manager of recycling programs for San Francisco city and county said they start the process internally with the "scope of work" which hones in on their needs and the desired outcome. "Once we've defined the outcome, then we think about what kind of RFP we need to write. We may write a tight [proposal] that says what we need and the steps that we want to go through. Or we may write something loosely and say, 'This is what we need, you're the experts, tell us the best way to get there.'"

Developing the scope of work can be fraught with limitations. Since the staff may have only a vague idea of the total project's range, sometimes the boundaries are set too wide or miss the true project description. In this case, sending a RFP/RFQ draft to several potential respondents can add insight and create a stronger, more focused proposal.

Steve Brekke-Brownell, a senior associate with Brown, Vence and Associates, San Francisco, said he enjoys giving input on the draft, because it helps him understand the client's goals and gives him the opportunity to suggest ways of keeping the project costs down. "Sometimes an RFP can have a lot of requirements and steps, which don't lead necessarily to the kinds of answers or analysis that they need to focus on. It's rare that we review a document or have an input on it before it's issued," he said.

The solid waste manager needs to be sensitive to issues of fairness, legality and ethics when requesting a review of a draft RFP/RFQ by consultants. It is wiser to contact several consultants and ask their review. This avoids concerns about collusion, while gaining the most perspective.

"I try to identify people who have done some similar types of projects," said Dave Hogan, executive director of the Bluestem Solid Waste Agency, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "In the past, we had consultants offer to send us a draft RFQ for a similar project. That can work fairly well. I usually try to blend at least two or three of them. I don't like to rely on one."

This review also is an opportunity for the client to receive complimentary assistance in the document's preparation. A good rule of thumb: When the RFP/RFQ is finally issued, if everyone is both a little happy and unhappy with its contents, then it's probably a good document.

Hogan attempts to find agencies that have done similar projects in the past as examples. "It's an interesting approach because not only do you get a copy of several RFP feasibility studies, but in looking through them, you can checklist the things that should have been included," he said, adding that the client can call the reviewing consultant back and ask if the results are the same as the recommendations indicate they should be.

Once the RFP/RFQ is finalized and formally issued, the action then shifts to the consultant's team. For major projects, advertising the proposal in periodicals will ensure the highest exposure. However, if the scope is broad, a bidder's conference may be necessary to elaborate on the project. In this forum, all the players can ask questions about the desired result. Often, this session can clarify ambiguous issues.

Each firm or consultant has its own approach to reviewing the RFP/RFQ and deciding to respond. Key firm members will review the document and decide if the request matches their expertise. "Obviously, we don't turn away a lot of work, but there are circumstances when it's just not worth our while to put in the equivalent of $10,000 to prepare a proposal that we think has a poor chance of being selected," said Brekke-Brownell.

The last question a firm should ask before answering an RFP is how much investment is needed for the waste manager's business. They would go ahead "if it's a good project and we've got a great relationship with the client, but if it's a $20,000 budget and a competitive bid with interviews, we would decline because it would cost us four, five or six thousand dollars to get the project, and by the time it's completed, we would have lost money on it," said Tagore-Erwin.

If the consultant decides to proceed, the RFP/RFQ scope of work will be carefully evaluated, and team members in the appropriate disciplines will be assigned to prepare the proposal. Since proposal writing may involve several team members with different writing styles, an editor is assigned to smooth out the responses and ensure the final document speaks with one voice.

Linda Witko, assistant city manager in Casper, Wyo., advised consultants to write their proposals with care. "Make sure that when I go through it, I don't find another city's name where the search and replace should've put 'Casper.' When I find that, I think, 'These people haven't given a whole lot of thought,'" she said.

The written proposal can make or break the consultant's chance of competing successfully. These proposals tell clients not only that the consultants have experience with a certain type of project, but also show how the consultants completed the project, said Witko. A proposal can show a client how much attention a consultant pays to them by the amount of homework they do on the community before submitting the proposal.

Once the proposals are submitted, the solid waste manager must begin the evaluation process. As the RFP/RFQ is developed, critical thought should be given to this process. It's one thing to prepare a list of tasks within the scope of work, and quite another to get five or six interpretations of what these firms thought was desired.

The manager needs to think through the information to be included in the responses, in order to get close to an "apples-to-apples" comparison for evaluation purposes.

For example, instead of requesting that the consultant provide a list of previous projects, a manager should ask for specifics concerning project types, the value, the point of contact and the end result. The more specific the information requested within the RFP/RFQ, the easier it will be to evaluate the responses.

Evaluation criteria needs to be objective and defensible. A clearly-defined evaluation process makes it easier to explain the recommendation for hiring a particular consultant. Although most firms will respect the recommendations made to the council or board of supervisors, an unsuccessful candidate occasionally may resort to lobbying in an effort to win.

Being able to explain how the decision was reached to the elected official reduces the likelihood of a recommendation being overturned.

Once the evaluations are completed, the top two or three respondents may be invited to make a presentation. This is an opportunity for both parties to discuss the project and allows the manager to assess the consultant's presence and communicative skills.

"I want to meet the people I am going to be working with," said Witko. "It is important that the team members who are part of the interview process aren't just salesmen for the company, but are the project director and the individual facilitating the community meetings. I want to listen to them and get a feel for how they will fit with our staff, council and community."

Depending on the individual agency's operating procedures, final selection of the consultant may be based either on the submitted project cost or negotiation results. A contractual document, standard agreement or other instrument may have been included in the original proposal or may be hammered out by the parties after final selection.

In some cases, negotiations are conducted between the top two firms. Procurement laws and policies vary between states, and local jurisdictions also have specific rules which they enforce when awarding an agreement. However, the solid waste manager always must be aware of the agency's procurement rules and should consult with purchasing staff and attorneys throughout the process.

Satisfaction with consultants can range from wild enthusiasm to disappointment. "We have an excellent slate of consultants that we're working with now, and we generally work very closely," said Maves. "We never just sign the agreement and say, 'Come back when you're done.' Staying in close contact works best for both us and the consultant because we're always clear on what it is we're trying to accomplish."

"Sometimes I don't think [waste managers] are willing to spend the time that it takes to hire a good consultant," said Bluestem's Hogan. "Being an administrator, I fall into this trap, and I think other people do too, however it's worth the time to get the right guy or the right firm. It's a good investment."