In the know?

    Consultants don’t have a great image in the social care world.
    Here, Helen Kara offers a personal perspective on why consultants
    are worthwhile and how to get the best out of them.

    Estate agent may be the public’s least trusted occupation, but
    for social care managers independent consultants come a close
    second if the grumbles in Community Care over the past few
    months are anything to go on. The main complaints seem to be that
    we are too expensive and not useful enough.

    I have been an independent social care consultant and researcher
    since 1997, and during the past two years I have been offered twice
    as much work as I can take on. This tells me that my clients find
    me affordable and useful. So what is the difference between
    people’s perception of consultants and the reality?

    Let’s look at the money first. Our day rates are high compared
    with a salaried day rate, because money has to go a lot further
    when you are self-employed. It was a shock to discover how much it
    takes to cover the costs of income protection insurance (equivalent
    of sick pay), pension contributions, and unpaid time for everything
    from going on holiday to reading Community Care.

    I could offer you vast amounts of supporting arithmetic, but
    suffice it to say that after four years of self-employment I am now
    able to pay myself £1,200 per month which feels like a
    comfortable living wage.

    However, it’s all very well to justify my charges for myself,
    but how do I justify my rates to my clients? And why do they agree
    with me, which they must do, as they keep coming back for more.

    Employees’ spare time is scarce and often nobody has time to map
    existing services in an area, research the requirements of a client
    group, facilitate the formation of a new partnership, assess the
    training needs of staff in an existing partnership, or evaluate a
    service. These pieces of work are important, time-consuming and
    usually need doing within a few months. They often benefit from an
    independent view as well. They are therefore ideal to ask an
    outsider to take on.

    They also demand some thinking time. Thinking isn’t valued in
    the workplace: if you sit at your desk trying to think around a
    problem, your colleagues or superiors are likely to see you as
    inactive. Many employees do their work-related thinking in the
    supermarket queue, in the shower or in the middle of the night in
    bed. I can set aside whole days or even weeks to concentrate on one
    task, a luxury that people in employment rarely have.

    Sometimes consultancy commissioners don’t even have time to
    think through a brief. I am often asked to take on work without a
    clear brief – and sometimes without any brief at all. For example,
    this March a commissioner, whom I will call Bill, had some money
    left in his budget.

    He decided to use it for a piece of research that he had wanted
    to commission for some time, and wanted to find a consultant in a
    hurry. Someone he knew and trusted recommended someone they knew
    and trusted, who was too busy to take it on but recommended me.

    Bill rang me, gave a brief outline of the work, and asked if I
    could start in six weeks’ time, but to invoice immediately to
    ensure that his money was spent before the end of the financial
    year. He hadn’t asked me about my professional or academic
    background, or about any relevant experience, and was quite
    prepared to give me several thousand pounds on the basis of a
    third-hand recommendation and a five-minute telephone
    conversation.

    If I had been unscrupulous, I could have taken the money, done a
    sketchy piece of work, and contributed to the reputation of
    consultants as too expensive and not enough use.

    Rest assured, I requested a meeting and worked with Bill to
    produce a brief before I accepted the commission. But the moral of
    this story is that as commissioners, you share the responsibility
    for the value of your consultants. There is a great deal you can do
    to ensure that your consultants are as much use to you as possible
    and that they really earn their day rates. As a minimum, you
    should:

    1. Use consultants only where you really need their input in
    your strategic and financial planning. This applies equally to
    voluntary sector agencies that can include consultants’ costs for
    specific pieces of work in funding bids.

    2. Produce a thoroughly thought out and costed brief for each
    piece of work before you approach a consultant. Don’t take anything
    for granted: consultants do not know the background to your work
    you do and is unlikely to include something you don’t mention just
    because you think it’s obvious.

    3. Be willing to accept a consultant’s input on the brief:
    however thorough you have been, they may see aspects of the work
    that you have not considered.

    4. Check a consultant’s professional and academic background and
    recent relevant experience. Even if you’ve worked with them before,
    it is worth finding out what they have been doing since then.

    5. Have realistic expectations, particularly for research
    findings. It is unlikely that consultants will tell you much that
    you don’t already know; the point of commissioning research is that
    a good researcher will make a systematic exploration of the issues
    and produce findings that are firmly evidence-based.

    6. Make it clear that you expect a professional job, done to a
    high standard and on time.

    7. Put your agreement in writing for clarity and protection on
    both sides – preferably as a formal contract, but an exchange of
    letters or e-mails will do.

    I hope, one day, to see a professional association for statutory
    and voluntary sector consultants with its own industry standards,
    regulations and code of ethics. In the meantime, following these
    suggestions will help to ensure best practice for consultants,
    commissioners and ultimately for the service users on whose behalf
    we are all working.

    Helen Kara is an independent consultant.

     

     

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