How to fight big contract bloat

Have you ever hired a management consultant and said, “We have this problem and just want to know what we should to do next.” Maybe your employees are unhappy, your systems are vulnerable, or you’re drowning in data. Maybe you’re struggling to get agreement among the managers about the best path forward. In theory, an experienced, objective third-party such as a management consultant can help. Right?

But when the consultants show up, you are left with one of two reactions: “That was a complete waste of money” or “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

Those leaning toward the “complete waste of money” end of the spectrum might say things like, “They told us what we already know.” This simple statement frames the problem with management consultants

Too often, the work consultants are assigned is too broad in scope to be reasonably focused on and completed. They do hours of research, interviews and analysis only to deliver recommendations that underwhelm federal managers instead of sparking action.

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Despite their best intentions, consultants often struggle to live up to their client’s expectations. And the reason for that struggle usually starts with the contract itself.

Why?

Over time, the size (money) and scope of management consulting contacts has slowly grown. At the same time, agencies are under increasing pressure to show results for the money they’ve invested in their own staff, technology, facilities and, of course, contracts.

Agencies are more complex and risk averse today than they were even 10 years ago.

Federal managers see systemic, interrelated problems that require crossing multiple divisions, if not bureaus and offices, to solve.

Procurement processes typically stretch out several months to a year or more, and buyers want to make sure they put everything in the contract they might possibly need so they don’t have to go back and start over.

Management consultants are presented with these huge, bloated contracts and find that they frequently can’t deliver every little detail of the job.

In short: Problems are bigger now, and it’s more difficult to get help.

There has to be a better way.

Agencies should think about procurement in a different way, starting by dramatically decreasing the size and scope of their management consulting projects from an average of $200,000 down to about $3,500.

This causes one important thing to happen:

  • All parties involved (federal managers and consultants) get laser-focused on the problem and what steps are needed to solve it.
  • There is no time for protracted data collection efforts or interviews. No time for hand-wringing about the things that could go wrong. And no time for padding the solution with ancillary recommendations.
  • Consulting on small or “micro” contracts brings the buyer and the consultant or expert together with just hours to get clear on the problem and flesh out the most important next steps, if not the end solution. Small contracts like these are focused and nimble. They’re an excellent option when you’re open to a wide range of possible solutions or aren’t precisely sure what you want. They can also elevate the conversation going on among the federal team and introduce new thinking.

The good news is that every federal agency can use small contracts under the micropurchase threshold of $3,500. It is a dramatically simplified purchase process, often done on a government charge card. No protracted proposal, review, and award processes are needed. The risk to the government is incredibly low, and they offer a tremendous upside in terms of getting the solution needed for a fraction of what they might have spent historically on a big, bloated management consulting contract.

Federal agencies will continue to tackle big, important problems. When new ones arise, consultants will continue to be there as a viable option to get the advice and support needed. The best way to engage them is on a small contract to ensure the agency gets the focused attention needed without the extras that don’t impact change.

Federal agencies tackle big, important problems daily. And when new ones pop up, it sometimes helps to get outside help from a management consultant to develop a strategy, get your resources aligned, or better understand what the data is telling you. Sometimes you know your program well and just want third-party validation that you’re on the right track. This contracted help can be the difference between spinning your wheels for months or gaining traction and making progress.

Most federal managers have had some exposure to consultants and have an opinion.


Robin Camarote is the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting, where she matches independent experts with federal leaders to solve their most pressing problems. Chris Cairns is a partner with Skylight Digital and a co-founder of GSA’s 18F office.