A partnership is not a purchase order

Whilst this article from the Harvard Business Review by Ben Gomes-Casseres is about private sector businesses it is nonetheless relevant to the public sector. Indeed with all the government talk of partnership in the last ten years or so perhaps it is more relevant to the public sector in the UK than than the private sector. I think that it is important for public managers to know the difference between partners and vendors. Having been involved in setting up strategic partnership arrangements for local authorities I know that one of the reasons for doing so is that they were looking for an arrangement that could be more flexible and dynamic than a standard contractor. 

If an organisation simply wants a certain product or service reproducing over and over again then a purchaser-vendor relationship would be fine. If the organisation wishes the product or service to adapt as the level of funding changes, or public expectations change, or politicians introduce new policies then a collaborative partnership is more appropriate. Both parties have to recognise and accept that change will happen over the term of the relationship and make a commitment to work together to adapt to the changes. Such working together requires, I think, the supplier to understand that the public sector organisation is interested in the quality and volume of outputs and outcomes; and the public sector organisation to accept that the partner is entitled to make a reasonable profit in return for its efforts. If both parties in a partnership are achieving their respective objectives then the chances of them working together to deal with unexpected events have got to be much higher than if they were not.

To hire or not to hire (a management consultant)


I read this short blog post on the Harvard Business Review website today and I agree with the author's fundamental point. Consultants can be very useful to an organization but if you hire one then you should manage them to make sure you get value for money. In my experience problems can start even before the consultant is hired. The absolutely critical step in any procurement process is to know what you want to buy. If you don't know what you want then you leave yourself open to the sort of cross-selling and scope creep described in the bloq. Sadly I have been witness to situations where a manager has decided that a consultant is the solution to a problem and hires someone without ever trying to describe what the problem is and what kind of solution was required.

Also, in the real world, consultants are sometimes hired because a manager is expected, obliged or even forced to hire one. Major outsourcing deals and PFI contracts involve lots of consultants each with their own area of expertise. It reminded me, though, of the time I was managing the outsourcing of the contract services division of a London borough. We were advised by an external firm of solicitors and in practice we had to be because the council only had one qualified solicitor in post at the time and they had lots of other things to do. Anyway, I was asked by my boss if I wanted some support in the form of management consultants or financial advisors. I was loathe to hire anyone because if they always agreed with what the lawyers said then they weren't needed; and if they disagreed with the lawyers, given that we were talking about a contract and not a set of accounts, I was going to take the lawyers' advice. The moral of this? I could easily have spent tens of thousands of pounds with one of the big firms of consultants with the full support of my boss. It would have covered my back, too. But it would have been a waste of money because we did not need them. Knowing what you want to do is all well as good, but you need to know when you don't need to buy as well.