5 Things I’ve Learned as a Consultant


I’m a city manager. I’ll always consider myself a city manager. I work with other city managers and local-government professionals. But instead of working full-time for one municipality, we now help government leaders create the change their organizations need.

Sometimes they need financial analysis or a strategic plan. Sometimes they want to improve their business processes or figure out how to share services with neighboring communities. Whether the change sought is big or small, it helps to enlist people outside the organization to look at it with fresh eyes and a knowledge of best practices.

When I became a consultant, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the role and responsibilities of city managers. After all, I’d been in local government for 25 years. But I’ve continued to learn about what city managers do as I work alongside them as a consultant. Here are five of the lessons I’ve learned:

  • See the elements of a management system as a whole. Everything an administration does, from the Council agenda preparation process, to budget, strategic and business planning, internal communication practices and talent management tools, are related to each other. Too often a manager embraces, for instance, a new performance evaluation system but doesn’t integrate it with the organization’s succession planning. Each needs to be considered as part of the entire system, and each element needs to serve the management team at a best practice level to maximize managerial success.
  • Plan the work – especially individual projects and initiatives – with careful attention and extra effort on the front end, to realize long-term success on the backend. Often, once someone’s decided to do a task or project, he or she wants to plunge in and get to work. I compare it to painting a room: when you’ve decided to paint, you want to paint, not tape the trim or spackle. But taking the time up front saves a lot of time and hassle at the end. So too with planning an initiative for your organization. That up-front investment of time and attention will pay off.
  • Create a plan for implementation to ensure great efforts don’t fall by the wayside. An organization will launch a new effort with great fanfare, and everyone’s hopes are high. But employees have a lot of responsibilities, and the duties of one more initiative are easy to set aside. Building implementation milestones of key projects into the performance plans of managers and staff is a great way to ensure those projects are carried out.
  • Make deadlines and commitments sacred. People often compare the public sector to the private sector in unflattering ways, which is unfair. The conditions and requirements of public service are in many ways more strenuous and unforgiving than those in the private sector. But in the business world that consultants inhabit, the power of competition requires that deadlines and commitments be honored. Public servants have no such competition to worry about, and the nature of the job means that staffers often overcommit because they want to please their bosses. Teaching the staff the importance of deadlines and commitments – even casual ones like, “I’ll check that and get back to you” – is a primary leadership responsibility.
  • Select consultants using a process that enables you to learn from potential consultants rather than one that inhibits communication. The selection processes that many governments use are designed to prevent corruption and preserve fairness. It’s a noble goal, but in reality it means that the process is often controlled by people in purchasing rather than those requesting the work. Requests for proposals frequently have layers added to them that distort the true aims of the project. A request for qualifications that asks consultants for their competency and rates can be a more productive way of selecting a consultant. If the consultant’s qualifications and rates meet your standards, you can then sit down together and draw up a scope of work and a contract that’s mutually agreeable.

Jerry Newfarmer is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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