Consultants – There to Take the Blame?
November, 2009Ahhh, consultants! The Boss says that this is the Parking Today Consultants issue and asked me to comment. What does an auditor – and a dog to boot – know about consultants? Well, I can tell you what one well-renowned consultant told me: “Consultants are there to take the blame.”
OK, it was really a 20-minute conversation, and he spoke eloquently about what consultants bring to the party. They bring experience and knowledge, he said. They know what questions to ask, and can help guide the answers so horrendous mistakes are avoided. They help managers put in positions without much knowledge (know anyone like that?) down paths that will lead to success, not failure.
Then he got to the crux of the conversation.
“However, in the end, many a job has been saved and many a project rescued because in political situations – and let’s face it, any public project is a political situation – someone was there to blame when things went wrong.
“Consultants need to have broad shoulders,” he said. “We make recommendations – that often aren’t taken – and then when the project has a problem, we are there to blame, and then to fix it, if we can. Politically, we are extremely important to the process when dealing with government agencies.”
Now just a gol’ darn minute here. Are you telling me that one of the consultant’s jobs is to be blamed even when they are blameless?
“We allow the political process to work,” he said. “These folks have little experience in the details. We bring that experience. When things go right, we are in the background and the appointed or elected official gets the credit.
“But when things go wrong, and they sometimes do, we are there to take the blame. We get pilloried, we get paid, and that’s it. We live to fight another day. If we weren’t there, the political process would collapse.”
But then how do you get another job if you get the blame for problems all the time?
“Everyone knows that this is how it works. Without us to take the fall, few politicians would survive their terms. However, it isn’t always bad. We provide a very useful service,” he said.
“Take a major airport parking project that has been ongoing for years. It has had one vendor that was deemed to have failed, another that is going to replace them, and the consulting firm involved is still there and working well.
“They were smart enough in the beginning to write a memo early on saying that failure was a possibility. It got buried, but of course they kept a copy. They were able to survive the process, assist with the changeover, and everyone was happy.
“But the management at the airport, who most likely had made the errors, were able to save face, the consulting firm was right all along, were kept in the loop, and the project will eventually succeed.
“Consultants walk a tight rope,” the consultant told me. “They have to make strong recommendations. But when those recommendations aren’t followed, they need to be sure they are there and in a position to pick up the pieces. If they do it well, they can survive the process, and the customer’s staff can survive, too.
“Consultants are political as well as technical. Why, I know a consulting firm that has been sued on a number of jobs, but the lawsuits just sort of fade away, and they are hired over and over by the same organizations.
“It’s a very intricate dance,” he said. “But one of our purposes, in addition to giving strong recommendations and technical advice, is to give the politicians a place to go when things go bad. Some of these projects are hundreds of millions of dollars and years in length. It’s impossible, with all interests involved, many political, to have it run smoothly. If we can aid in that process, then we have earned our fee, and done our job.
“In the end, the customer gets a successful project, and we help them over the political as well as the technical aspects,” he said.
I sat in a meeting the other day reviewing the bids to operate a project in a major U.S. city. It was an interesting meeting. It took nearly four hours – three of which had to do with how to approach the bids so the project owner wouldn’t be sued.
In our litigious society, if every “i” isn’t dotted and every “t” isn’t crossed, the losing bidders can cry foul and begin to take action that could cause the process to be thrown out and started over again. (Can you say Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport?)
In the private sector, this seldom happens. A private owner or operator doesn’t have to go out to bid. They simply find an operator they like, give the existing company 30 days’ notice, and that’s that.
But in the public sector, it’s different. In this case, the consulting firm that wrote the specification and reviewed the bids earned their substantial fee. They ensured not only that the substance of the bids was correct, but that the all-important “form” was right, too.
We needed to be certain that the process was exacting and fair. I learned in that room that having a consultant that knows what they are doing, and can write a specification that is clear and unambiguous, is worth the money paid.
Remember, in most cases, operators will be handling millions of dollars over a period of years. Time and money spent upfront to ensure that everyone is clear on the project and on the fine print can make all the difference.