Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Consulting alternatives

The Holyland area of Belfast is to be the focus of another consultant's report.  Why exactly I'm not sure.  Alex Maskey provides a reasonable summary of the issues in the area:

"As we approach the beginning of a new university academic term, the reality of the Holyland area is that it is an area with around 1,500 households and a population of around 9,000 people.  The end result of this has included an increase in anti-social behaviour; a break-down in community cohesion; the degradation of the local environment: overcrowding in a number of properties; an over-proliferation of HMO's; poor community and environmental infrastructure and increasing crime rates. All of this is unacceptable and has left many long-term residents in the area dreading the beginning of the academic year, year after year."

So the problems are well defined and the area has had a number of special interventions already. Therefore is a consultant's report what is needed?

Now despite 15 years working in the community/voluntary sector I'm not down on consultants report per se (except the ones who import quasi-hippy techniques from America). I've worked with good consultants with thorough processes that were challenging. I've seen some very poor ones (disproportionately among the more expensive ones).  Most of the time they're neither good nor bad. They are simply what is there because some civil servant won't spend more than £50K until they have paid for a feasibility study, strategic plan, an action plan and a business plan (usually at £3-5K a time) which with tendering, research and holidays usually takes a good 18-24 months. By which stage the original civil servant has moved on and the new one will start questioning whether the feasibility study needs updating etc.  Yet they still manage to look surprised when everyone else in the room starts banging their heads off the table in frustration and go back to their office to complain about how unco-operative community workers are.

This strikes me as probably a type three.  They've done what they've done it hasn't worked so they call in the consultants to wander around everyone to try and work out what they do next because that's what you do when that happens, correction commission a study:

" partnership with a number of assembly departments, agencies and academic establishments."

However, in these chastened times is that the most cost effective approach?  Would a quick check at a local recruitment agency not have found a couple of people who'd be qualified to do the research and for a lot less than £250 to £500 a day.  (The £500 is usually given to the 'senior' consultant who is the Bigfoot or Yeti of the consultancy world. They are never seen by anyone but the junior consultants swear they have seen glances of them. The only evidence is usually a paw print/signature on the final report.)

Would the list of organisations above not have been able to re-assign relevant individuals or include it in the work-plans?  The usual excuse for this is it needs to be 'independent'. If these organisations don't have the confidence in one another to develop a report together there stands little chance of them genuinely working together to implement it.  The area is covered by a partnership board and this type of work would fall naturally to it. Why not use it? Two of the organisations are universities - could they not find some relevant section and/or group of research students who could do the work?

Leaving aside the cynicism and exaggeration in my comments above underpinning it all is this. The way we have doing things can't be sustained. So we need to see how we can achieve similar results but cheaper and today is as a good day to start as we'll get. 

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