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

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

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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