Some people might say that there is no such thing as a difficult client. Instead the consultant, or supplier, just hasn’t provided the right solution.
I disagree with that point of view. I don’t think agencies set out to be difficult and I don’t think that suppliers set out to provide the wrong solution. As with most things, its about finding the right match. That is more difficult when the ‘solution’ is an independent evaluation. By its very name an independent evaluation is, well, independent. This notion can be challenging for both the agency and the evaluator, especially where the evaluator is enthusiastic about the agency’s work.
There are two guiding documents in any project: the Terms of Reference and the Contract. It is important that both are understood and that the deliverables and timelines are clear. These two documents are the fall-back when there is a disagreement and things get difficult. When commissioning a consultant, make sure that the Terms of Reference reflect what you really want to happen. If there is any opportunity for interpretting the Terms of Reference in a different way, you might end up with a piece of work that adheres to the Terms of Reference, but isn’t what you wanted in the first place. This happens more often than you might think.
Consultants are also at fault here. Many are tempted to shoehorn their favourite way of woking into a proposal that appears to fit the Terms of Reference, but in reality only supports the consultant to do what they enjoy doing at the expense of the organisation.
Inception periods are supposed to ensure that there is clarity and agreement on what the project is. In reality, few organisations really read the inception report that consultant prepare and fewer still take more that two hours to fulfil the inception obligation. I’ve had clients introduce new requirements that were not in the Terms of Reference during inception, some of which I was not suited to deliver (and had I known this beforehand I wouldn’t have submitted a tender). I’ve also had clients introduce new requirements during the report writing stage, by which time its too late to change the goal posts. Generally when that happens, you realise you have a client that wants to use the report for more than the original purpose, or the decision-makers in the organisation were not part of writing the Terms of Reference. Or the client believes that the quality of the report is so bad that they have to try and fix it themselves. None of this is generally helpful to either the organisation or the consultant.
Staff at organisations are often under pressure from high work loads to save time and produce results quickly. Consultants constantly rally against low budgets and impossible timeframes. This is how mistakes can occur.
It is crucial that organisations and consultants alike improve the specification of what is needed and what is possible for evaluations and consultancies. You don’t spend thousands of pounds to commission a piece of work that doesn’t do what you need it to do; but equally you shouldn’t spend thousands of pounds to commission someone to tell you just what you want to hear.
So here are some guiding points when thinking about the terms of reference and the commissioning process for consultancies and evaluations:
- Give yourself enough time to do the terms of reference and consult on them properly before issuing a call for tenders. You know this piece of work is coming, in some cases years ahead of when it is scheduled. So there really is no excuse for producing terms of reference at the last minute or not ensuring that they are fit for purpose;
- Make sure you really are asking for a piece of work that you need. It is too easy to put in place a policy that says you will do an evaluation on every project every year. It sounds impressive, but what are you really learning and does every one of those evaluations contribute towards your theory of change or aims and mission? Don’t use the donor as an excuse for setting up complex systems and processes that need evaluating regularly because you think that’s what the donor wants. We all know that these days most donors do understand that organisations should be conducting M&E for their own needs first and that, if everyone in the funding chain has done their job properly, donors can make use of organisations’ M&E data to meet their own needs;
- Employ a bit of Freakonomics thinking, turn the Terms of Reference on its head and think about it from a different perspective to ensure that the question that you are asking in the Terms of Reference really is the question that you need to answer;
- Use the inception period wisely. You’ve already chosen your consultant, so you can afford to be collaborative and consider how to achieve the end results in quite some detail. It isn’t usually the place to introduce new requirements (as I discuss above) as you might find that the person you have commissioned, no longer has the relevant skills.
How much of this rings true in your organisation? Have you had experiences where the client or the consultant didn’t deliver what had been expected and what did you do about it? What did you learn from that experience?