Consultancy Playbook: How to get the best result when sourcing consultants

The best practices for ensuring successful delivery whilst getting the greatest value from increasingly constrained budgets

The government has released the long-awaited revision to the Consultancy Playbook (dubbed 2.0), guiding authorities on how to get the best outcomes from their consulting partners. 

The playbook further improves the support provided to buyers and offers an important means to fostering greater collaboration between the civil service and external consultants. As most government departments are mandated to use the playbook, it’s important that such frameworks outline the best possible practices for ensuring successful delivery whilst getting the greatest value from increasingly constrained budgets.

We at Proxima are delighted to have contributed to developing this guidance and that the government has engaged with industry stakeholders such as the Management Consultancies Association (MCA) in the development of the playbook. 

In support of its upcoming release, we have outlined five key tips to help buyers engage more effectively with consultants.

  1. Buy the outcome, not the service

Clarity is key! Consultancies work best when presented with a problem to solve rather than a solution to implement. Many authorities fall into the trap of prescribing the solution that they think they need and, in doing so, constrain the ability of the consultancy to apply its best thinking to the challenge. 

Consultancies only need three things from a brief:

  • A detailed description of the problem to be solved and the issues that it is creating
  • A view of the parameters in which they need to operate (mainly timeframes and working practices)
  • A clear articulation of the outcomes that you want to see delivered
  1. Communicate clearly and often

Approaching a “cold” market often results in fewer (or poorer) responses.  In many cases, the first time that a consultancy is aware of a need is when the brief lands in their inbox. Their first action is to qualify the opportunity in or out. Without good insight into the context of the potential opportunity, and faced with multiple approaches from prospective clients, some great consultancies may decline to participate.

Spending time warming the market often yields a far greater quality of response. The requirements for fairness and transparency do not preclude early market engagement, and consultancies will be willing to provide thoughts on potential solutions in order to better address the buyer’s challenges.

Authorities who run bidder workshops and supplier engagement events will typically get a better response. The same is true for those who provide frequent question and answer sessions rather than relying on a written clarification process alone. 

In addition, giving detailed feedback on unsuccessful pitches allows consultancies to understand better the needs of the sector. It is, therefore, in both parties' interests to understand where a consultancy could improve to encourage them to bid for future work and to keep them engaged with public and private sector needs. 

  1. The best engagements give the consultants space to do their best work

Each consultancy will bring its own approach to delivering the project based on their specific expertise and experience. Many will employ innovative and creative solutions based upon the best practices across private and public sectors. The key here is to monitor rather than manage their work.

Provide clear governance and access to decision-makers to allow obstacles to be seen and resolved quickly, and then hold the supplier accountable for their performance and delivery.  Constraints should be kept to a minimum and limited to the elements absolutely essential for the project (think security clearance, data management or on-site working).   

  1. Provide sufficient time for responses

Consulting requirements are often targeted at addressing imminent (and urgent) needs. The tendency is often to run the tender at pace, requiring bidders to put forward their solutions within tight timeframes. The Consultancy Playbook sets out minimum response periods; however, we would encourage teams to consider extended deadlines where possible.

The truth is that the response period should reflect the complexity of the request. In every case, the consultancy will be facing multiple approaches and balancing priorities for their bid teams. An extra week on the response time can be the difference between a well-thought-through proposal and a no-bid.

Finally, ensure a good blend of responses, from established regulars to niche SMEs — diversity of thought will enrich the response

Diversity of participation has been shown to significantly increase the quality of bids received from advisory firms. Poor participation is often a consequence of insufficient attention to points 1-4 above.

Neglecting to take context into account and engage properly with suppliers or limiting the timeframe for response gives an advantage to those consultancies who have worked within the sector rather than a broad spectrum of companies with a range of ideas and approaches. In the same vein, asking solely for case studies that demonstrate delivering similar projects in a public sector setting only serves to restrict bids to those who are already working in the space.

Where tenders can be written to invite examples of best practice, regardless of the sector or setting, the opportunity to receive truly innovative responses will be greatly increased. 

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Ultimately, engaging effectively with consultants comes down to one thing: collaboration. Collaboration throughout the process leads to effective outcomes. Collaboration internally with all relevant stakeholders and collaboration with your consultancy. Getting the most out of your consultancy is about engaging them with a bid which allows them to show their expertise to its fullest.

This means making your specifications clear, giving an open brief which looks for a solution, giving appropriate timescales and allowing SMEs to participate. Ticking all these boxes ensures that consultants want to bid time and time again to win your business and can immerse themselves in the brief to deliver the best possible approach.

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