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July 2014

Pub Perspective: Too much reliance on consultants?

In recent years, some have argued public transportation agencies rely too much on the work and advice of consultants and that they are highly paid when the work could be done in-house and so on. That point of view in most cases ignores the fundamental reason why they are usually hired: they have expertise and experience the agency that hires them lacks.

Industry forces increase reliance on outside experts
There are four important industry trends that tell us why consultants are relied on more and more. First, the increasing use of new technologies and more complicated service demands have put demands on agencies for expertise they lack — or that they may need only temporarily. A consultant is ideally suited for such a need, because they can bring in an industry-wide perspective, and the best of the bunch are far more familiar with new technologies, especially those that may have been used internationally, than a single agency in the U.S. This is not to say that American transit is behind; in fact, the U.S. is ahead of other places in some important areas of our business. Good consultants know best practices — and agencies should demand that of those they hire.

A second reason for greater reliance on consultants has to do with what is happening within agencies. There is a generational turnover going on amongst top management in the industry right now, and many times consultants are brought in to help deal with the turnover, as well as changes in agency structures needed as service needs change and help “right-size” the organization to deal with these new types of demands.

Finally, more consultants will be needed as the industry becomes more familiar with alternative forms of project and service delivery. In fact, because there is so little experience with design-build, public-private partnerships and every other alternative to design-bid-build, getting a good consultant on board to walk an organization through these new ways of doing business is essential to success.

Communication, not cost, is key

Communication is also a big key to success. Many times, agencies feel that they need to hire the least expensive consultant team to help guard taxpayer money. My consultant contacts tell me that this approach may violate state and federal laws.

Aside from that issue, though, it’s not the best way to save taxpayer money; clear communication is. Talk to your peers for recommendations. Write a good, clear scope of work. Be amenable to changes in that scope if something remains unclear. Talk to each other, honestly. It will probably also save the industry money in the long run.

Whether it’s buying bus parts, a railcar procurement or hiring a consultant, a lack of clear, tight, two-way communication seems to be the root of the problems I hear about.


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