Sunday, September 9, 2012

“Dear Paul,” or how consultants leave us speechless, impossible as that may seem

Some years back, we spoke to the town council about hiring us as a consultant to help them figure out how to conduct town business without the need for so many consultants.  Unfortunately, the town did not see the wisdom in doing so; they couldn’t imagine what we could do, and invest in us accordingly.

It may have been around the time that a consulting contract was let for about $1 million to come up with ideas on how to connect US Route 1 to the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.  As far as we can recall, the town itself paid little or none of that sum.  But we remember looking at the related contract documents, only to learn that consultants contracted out to other consultants, and in at least one case, the second tier consultant hired a third tier consultant.

We also remember thinking that even at a generous average consulting fee of $1,000 a day, the contract would pay for four full time, highly paid consultants working for one year to pore over some maps and satellite imagery, drive around town looking at things, and then make some drawings and put a report around them.  No doubt they’d be burning the midnight oil to get the job done for a mere million dollars.

Now we learn that the Brunswick School Department is consulting with consultants on help with the strategic planning process, aimed specifically at the School Board. 

You’ll enjoy looking at a proposal for the consultants (“Marty and Kat”) to prepare the now unprepared School Board for a second contract that would actually involve the strategic planning process, at unknown future costs.  We’re guessing another $50,000 or more.

“After a lengthy discussion with her (Kat), we both agree that the board is not ready to take on strategic planning successfully.” 

You can also find the web page for the consultant here.

Readers who know us know that we aren’t often at a loss for words, but this proposal left us momentarily speechless.  Being speechless has at least two variations.

The first is when you come upon something so visually, emotionally, or aurally stunning that your inner articulator shuts down momentarily, and you are literally at a loss for words.  We think of the first time we held our newborn infant daughter, or when we first viewed the vast Grand Canyon while standing on its very rim.  Moments like these take your breath away, and you need time to absorb the experience, get your thoughts together, and then express them as best you can, if only feebly.

A second way to go speechless is when you encounter something that infuriates you, insults your sense of reason, and gives you the feeling that we are being had.  The words and reactions that come immediately to mind are not fit for public discourse, and so one is at a loss for words, but in a different way.

That’s the case here, so we’ve had to stew overnight and refine our comments.

In our career in a complex high technology field, we didn’t often see consultants hired.  If we lacked a necessary skill, we generally set about developing the skill for ourselves.  And talented individuals were advanced in both skills and responsibility.  But then we weren’t government.

In those rare cases where consultants were hired, you could almost always sense that the person doing the hiring was seeking a crutch, and was buying air cover for a decision he knew would be unpopular, or he didn’t have the guts to think through and make on his own.

We have the distinct impression from our review of the cited document that the same thing is happening here.  That while the process is supposedly aimed at ‘strategic planning,’ as in developing a plan, it is more about developing a strategy to gain support for a plan that has already been made.  (Witness the board’s asserted lack of readiness.)  So it might more accurately be called planning strategy, rather than strategically planning.

Why do we say that?  Because of the context.  You see references to a referendum in the spring, and existing architectural plans for renovation.  You see references to ‘buy-in’ by various parties, official and otherwise. 

In essence, the School Department’s plan is known and addressed clearly; the consultant is proposing to shape the thinking of the School Board in particular, and the various stakeholders in general, to fully support the plan already on the table.  And the consultant makes it clear from having met with Board Members and the Superintendent that the former is not yet ready to have their views shaped by others, so some preliminary work is required to soften them up.

The renovation and investment plan is a fait accompli; it’s already in the CIP.  You don’t see a proposal to study town demographics and growth outlooks, or ability to take on major new capital spending.  You don’t see an effort to understand how those responsible allowed the physical plants to deteriorate to this critical stage, or what alternatives there might be.  Or how the organization should be changed to see the same thing doesn’t happen again, and how snow shouldn’t be allowed to pile up on roofs until structural damage occurs.

You see only a proposal to pay others, and pay them well, to convince the School Board to sell the public on a plan that has already been laid out.

Well, enough general commentary.  Here are some specific observations.

1) The consultancy, Systems In Sync, is located in Vermont.  When you look at its list of clients, you find they are all in New Hampshire and Vermont.  Except for one – the Brunswick School Department, which is not exactly on the New Hampshire border.  This leads us to wonder just how this particular consultant came to be the choice for this work.

2) We find the opening – “Dear Paul” and the references to the consultants as “Marty” and “Kat” to be strangely familiar in professional business documents.  We find the third party references to themselves odd as well.

3) We’re a bit troubled by the notion that readiness ‘includes a high level of trust and support for the strategic planning process..’  In other words, trust us, because you’re paying us a lot of money.  Readiness also involves a ‘relatively low level of conflict and disagreement amongst board members.’ 

Clearly, unanimous or near unanimous support for the plan already in place is the goal, and it may take more payment for Marty and Kat’s services to get that.  On the other hand, the board penchant for almost always voting unanimously to support whatever the Administrations proposes would make this seem like not much of a challenge.

4) Don’t you just love the term ‘building capacity,’ as in ‘an opportunity for the board to assess its readiness to build capacity for both strategic planning and governance?’  We have a hard time seeing the board as being involved in ‘governance’ of any form, unless you consider approving what the administration puts before it to be ‘governance.’  ‘Building capacity’ sounds more like a class for incoming Bowdoin students, in which they learn techniques for holding their liquor or beer better, though we did find this as one definition on the web:

Capacity building often refers to strengthening the skills, competencies and abilities of people and communities in developing societies so they can overcome the causes of their exclusion and suffering.

Regardless of the meaning in the proposal at hand, the use of such terms is part and parcel of justifying $1,200 a day consulting rates.   A person could make a damn good living at that rate, though we don’t have our slide rule handy.

5) On page 3, under purpose and goals, we read in the list of outcomes that ‘the board will gain a clearer understanding of board roles and responsibilities that will enable them to govern more effectively.’  Besides the prior comment on governance, do we really have to pay people $150 an hour to tell the board what its roles and responsibilities are?  Hasn’t the Superintendent already done that?  Isn’t that his job?

6) We realize that Vermont is a long way away, but we still think nearly $3,000 for mileage and tolls is a bit heavy handed.

In conclusion, we realize that $28,000 for this proposal in a Department with a $33 million budget is chump change, and that the ensuing actual ‘strategic planning’ contract, though probably only $50,000 or so, will similarly be chump change for securing a town investment of $20 million plus to pay for deferred maintenance expenses.  Still, we find the rates involved to be alarming for  services designed to overwhelm harsh reality with confidence and consummate professionalism, while dazzling the local populace with ‘shared visions’ and group-think.  Sorry, that’s ‘group decision making.’


Is there any doubt that Marty and Kat know that they’re dealing with OPM, and that the pickings are easy?  And that the usual army stands ready to redeploy those “imagine and invest” signs?

Not to mention getting Sally Sellit to remind us that funding the Marty and Kat team is vital to protecting our home values. 

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how a very expensive journey can begin with the simple step “Dear Paul.”


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  2. Proof of the old adage "BS baffles brains". If you don't know what to do and must do something or you will lose your job, hire a consultant do what he says and if it works fine, if not, you can blame the consultant and hire another one.

    You can do this so long as you don't run out of consultants or the people who hired you finally conclude you don't know what your doing. If you are in education you dumb down your students who ultimately become your employer and they will be unable to break the cycle.