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Thread: What is "consulting" ?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    What is "consulting" ?

    I've seen this word, "consulting", thrown around a lot as a viable private sector alternative to traditional planning. However, I have yet to fully grasp what a consultant actually does. Can someone please enlighten me? Thanks!

  2. #2
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    A consultant can do anything a government-employed planner can do. They are usually hired by governments to do additional work for an entity that regular staff can't handle or doesn't have time/resources to do. Developers may hire a planning consultant to manage a project submittal. Look at a few private consultant websites, they are not usually shy about showing their work!
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    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Beach-Bum makes a good point that some consultants can do anything a government employed planner can do, but I feel they forgot a key point to a consultant's work: A consultant provides a knowledge base that their client either a) does not have the knowledge capacity to perform;or b) do not have the resources to perform the task.

    i.e. a municipality brings in a "consultant" to write their comp plan because the staff lacks the time or resources in skill set to perform such an endeavor as in staff is busy with day to day operations of current planning and other items on their plate to set up, facilitate work shops, write a plan and manage other sub-consultants necessary to perform a comp plan.

    a municipality hires a "consultant" to perform a fiscal impact analysis on a new sewage treatment plant because they lack the knowledge base to perform such as task in a cost efficient manner. In this instance, staff may not even know where to start with a fiscal impact analysis, thus learning how to do one is an inefficient use of tax payer dollars, so go hire a consultant who specializes in such studies.

    Consultanting in a nut shell from a consultant.
    Last edited by Raf; 29 Oct 2008 at 6:48 PM. Reason: more info
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    Cyburbian drjb's avatar
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    Being that I work for a consulting firm, I figured I'd chime in.

    My consulting firm is more of a real estate and economic development consulting firm, as opposed to a planning consulting firm, although there is some overlap between the two. In general beach_bum is correct, as we basically are hired to do what planning and redevelopment and economic development departments won't do on their own or need a third party to do. However, the only addition to that is we have a large group of private clients as well. For both the public and private sectors, we work on pro forma analyses, developer selection, economic development plans, urban decay analyses, fiscal impact reports and the likes.

    Hope this clarifies things for you.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Veloise's avatar
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    Consultants also fill in to staff up special or seasonal projects.

    I've worked in that capacity in several fields: document production (we need to get the Manhattan yellow pages-sized technical manual for this duo-fuel bus out to the governmental client within two weeks!), planning (we lack the staff to compile a draft of our non-motorized master plan), advertising (weekly deadline for national display advertising), and cell tower zoning (several staff are attending the regional APA confab and on vacation, and we need zoning verifications on all these sites).

    HTH

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Richmond Jake's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by beach_bum View post
    A consultant can do anything a government-employed planner can do...[snip]...
    Quote Originally posted by CPSURaf View post
    Beach-Bum makes a good point that some consultants can do anything a government employed planner can do...[snip]... A consultant provides a knowledge base that their client either a) does not have the knowledge capacity to perform;or b) do not have the resources to perform the task.

    i.e. a municipality brings in a "consultant" to write their comp plan because the staff lacks the time or resources in skill set to perform such an endeavor as in staff is busy with day to day operations of current planning and other items on their plate to set up, facilitate work shops, write a plan and manage other sub-consultants necessary to perform a comp plan..[snip]....
    Thanks for your observations. You're right. We public employees just don't have the skill sets. We've lived and worked in our communities for years, if not decades. Maybe too long. You know and can do as much more for our communities from your long distance offices than what we can. We really don't know nearly as much about our communities as the fly-by-night consultants using their generic boilerplate comprehensive/community/neighborhood "plans."

    Oh, and follow-up to implement this boilerplate plan? Well, that's left to us less-than-skilled public employees left behind when you folks are long gone and the checks turned to cash.

    We're completing an in-house comp plan update while still conducting the day-to-day business of the county and absorbing a recently dissolved municipality. And my staff will succeed without your assistance. Stuff that in your pipe and smoke it.

    In other words: No, you can't. Come on folks, climb off you high horses.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Zoning Goddess's avatar
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    Consultants often show up when the government wants to "downsize", i.e. get rid of useless/underutilized employees. They hire consultants to fill the void since they are not technically employees, while they fire people right and left. And a few months later, the consultants' contract expires.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian JNL's avatar
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    RJ, I don't think saying that staff use consultants when they lack time or resources is meant as a criticism - it's usually a combination of staff being tied up with other commitments and therefore not being able to utilise their skills and knowledge, and so there's a need to buy in expertise for a period of time.

    I'm a consultant and I would add another angle to the definition: we're usually brought in for a specific project or set of tasks, and for a specified time period. About 95% of our work is project-based and it is rare that we are contracted purely to fill a gap in staffing levels.

    We spend a lot of time writing proposals for work: we have to convince the client that we have the required skills and experience, and that we will be able to deliver what they need on time and within budget. We often have to develop an approach within the proposal that explains the steps we will take that will achieve the desired project outcomes.

    And I've never worked in the kind of situation you describe, ZG! We leave our clients happy and healthy!

  9. #9
    Cyburbian FueledByRamen's avatar
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    My perspective as a consultant...hoping to bridge the gap between RichmondJake and CPSURaf and then to build upon what JNL said:

    The difference, in my opinion, is between what geographers refer to as Local Knowledge and Expert Knowledge.

    Public sector planners have the Local Knowledge. They know more about their city (assuming they've been there a while) than any consultant ever could (unless the consultant lives/lived there for a while). They know the ins and outs, the politics, the history, etc. They are great at what they do, which is knowing their city inside and out and making decisions daily based on this knowledge.

    Consulting planners have the Expert Knowledge. That is, they (we) are specialized in certain arenas and bring perspective to the cities we work in. We have experience in other geographies...meaning that we have seen what works and doesn't work in other cities, we know what is currently going on in other cities, the state, and the nation, and we have done fifteen [Insert Type of Plan Here] Plans in the last two years so we're getting pretty good at it, making us able to crank out a more in depth plan using the latest methods and trends in a shorter amount of time (theoretically) for less money (theoretically)....all with the unreplaceable help of the City staff.

    At least...this is how consulting works in my neck of the woods. I have heard of no instances in Texas where planning staff was replaced by consultants other than cities under, say, 2 or 3 thousand people that never had planning staff to begin with and outsource all of their technical work (including engineering).

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by RichmondJake View post
    Thanks for your observations. You're right. We public employees just don't have the skill sets. We've lived and worked in our communities for years, if not decades. Maybe too long. You know and can do as much more for our communities from your long distance offices than what we can. We really don't know nearly as much about our communities as the fly-by-night consultants using their generic boilerplate comprehensive/community/neighborhood "plans."

    Oh, and follow-up to implement this boilerplate plan? Well, that's left to us less-than-skilled public employees left behind when you folks are long gone and the checks turned to cash.

    We're completing an in-house comp plan update while still conducting the day-to-day business of the county and absorbing a recently dissolved municipality. And my staff will succeed without your assistance. Stuff that in your pipe and smoke it.

    In other words: No, you can't. Come on folks, climb off you high horses.

    Ouch.

    RJ, I think it is fair to say that your city is an exception. Many of the communities we work with are too small to have a planning staff, or if they do, their staff is solely focused on day-to-day planning needs. They do not have the capacity (either staff time or specific experience) to take on some of the projects we are brought in to complete. In other cases, the political environment is one that does not allow a government to plan in-house, so that a "neutral" planner is required.

    I share your concerns that some consultants (even ones with well-known names) will often use boilerplate in preparing their plans. I'll add that too many are also wedded to planning ideology instead of havng an interest in community preferences or market feasibility. A good planning consultant, however, can bring that market understanding, can offer an objective perspective on community input, can offer real technical expertise, and can draw upon examples from a wide range of similar communities across the country. They will treat each project as something entirely new, and they will conduct a process that gets buy-in from the community.
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    maudit anglais
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    It is very simple. You give me your watch, I tell you what time it is.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Richmond Jake's avatar
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    Okay, I realize there are good and bad planners on both sides of the counter but the phrase "A consultant can do anything a government-employed planner can do..." struck a raw nerve. Maybe it's the workload were experiencing right now. I didn't intend to offend anybody.

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    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    My phrasing didn't intend to mean that local gov. planners are inadequate, in fact I am a local government planner! The orginial poster didn't seem to know what planning consulting is, I was just trying to put it in simple terms, as if I knew what planning was in general, but didnt understand the work of a consultant or how they could plan in the private sector. I would argue that one who works as a planner could do public or private work with the skill set they have. It really just depends on where you work!
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  14. #14
    Cyburbian Fat Cat's avatar
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    Fat Cat

    I have worked in both the public and private sector, my experience as a "consultant" was that we did work for communities that could not afford a full time planner or we picked up projects that staff just did not have the time to do.
    Some of the consultants (not the ones that I worked for) are called boiler plate consultants. In other words they will say to the Planning Commission
    Do you like A or do you like B because the less time spent on billable hours gives them a higher profit.
    It is like any group, there are good people, bad people and people in between.
    The same applies to the public sector
    But the main thing to remember is that they have to make a profit, so those tickets to games or "parties" are being paid for by the goverment organization that accepting the tickets or going to the parties
    The state municipal league (that I currently work in) has some excellent guidelines to follow and they will keep you from ending up on the ten oclock news

  15. #15
    Cyburbian
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    "A consultant can do anything a government-employed planner can do..."
    In the US, can a consultant speak FOR the city? There are presumably roles involving authority to act on behalf of the city that a consultant can normally not fulfil,,, or can your municipalities even delegate that authority to non-permanent employees in specific functional roles/positions? Are there any confidential issues or information that are not available to consultants but only to specifically identified officials? I assume that city staff have a different status as employees that is not easily transfered to a consultant under the law. I realise that this can vary from state to state or even from city to city.

    These kinds of question may help clarify the sense in which consultants cannot do SOME things that government-employed planners can.

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    Cyburbian Plan-it's avatar
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    Consultants (where I work) are political cover, people that give an opinion supported by the regional planning body (regardless if the local residents/businesses want what is being peddled or not), or boilerplate sales reps. I am with RJ on this. We do our own work and only hire consultants when we have too much work already or do not believe in something that is being pushed politically (sure you can have that study - just fork over $120,000 and we will hire a consultant to take care of that for you). It is interesting that none of the studies produced by consultants have been implemented (due to political opposition from the Planning Commission, Board or community-at-large).
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    Cyburbian Bubba's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Monamogolo View post
    In the US, can a consultant speak FOR the city?
    I can't answer this for the local level, but I can speak for the federal level, and the answer is an emphatic no. As a consultant (federal contractor), I cannot speak for the government, commit the government to anything, or sign anything on behalf of the government.
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    Cyburbian FueledByRamen's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Fat Cat View post
    But the main thing to remember is that they have to make a profit...
    Off-topic:
    Well, yes...but in many AEC firms, the planning group often has quite a smaller profit margin than other groups...firms keep them around as a way to draw in business for other, more profitable disciplines (civil, arch, MEP, etc.).

  19. #19
    Cyburbian
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    I have worked for the public and private sectors (currently employed as a consultant). Several clients from rural communities do not have full-time planning staff. These municipalities might just retain the bare-bones staff (administrator, clerk, etc.). My firm is contracted to provide on-going review work in these communities (site, landscape, and architectural review) as well as other projects (design, long-range planning, transportation planning, environmental planning, etc.). These communities might also hire engineering firms to engineering plan review. Fortunately we do not have to attend too many evening meetings for on-going review work: our review comments are added to the staff report for developments and then submitted to the respective plan commission/village board for consideration and/or approval. We also do not have to man the zoning desk to field questions from residents.

    In this case, I would disagree that ONLY public sector employees have local knowledge. In this capacity, the consultant is performing the day to day role of the planner, and the community often defers project-specific questions to the consultants.

    I also disagree that ONLY consultants have expert knowledge. Public and private sector planners are often involved in professional organizations, whether it be attending a conference, workshop, or volunteering their time to serve on a professional association board. Planners constantly strive to develop best practices in their professions as evident by the ongoing CM requirements for AICP. Public and private sector planners have also provided expert witness tesitomy. I would rephrase the statement: due to on-going projects with other clients and previous experience, consultants may have easier access to applying best practices towards projects that meets the needs of their clients

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    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    I wish this thread was in FAC

    http://despair.com/consulting.html

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    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Can't we all just get along...
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    Cyburbian Plan-it's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by CPSURaf View post
    Can't we all just get along...
    I understand your concern that this thread is teetering on the verge of attack (sorry about my last post by the way, no harm meant), but I think this can end up being a healthy discussion.

    It is vital for you, in the private sector, to hear unadulterated views on how the public side views your services. It will help you in selling your services, creating products, and delivering a product your clients might want, if you know the concerns that are out there in general.

    On the opposite side, we in the public side, especially from larger jurisdictions, need to get our heads out of our own gluteus maximus sometimes and see that not all communities have the same resources and thus have more "needs" (aka outsourcing work to the private sector). We can get a little snobbish sometimes in that regard and maybe that will lead us to appreciate the work that the private sector does for these types of communities.
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    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    you say fun, I say crap, let's call the whole thing off

    actually, I use consultants to do stuff that meets one or more of the following criteria:
    • to do stuff I don't have time to do (as in census data analysis)
    • to do stuff I am not that great at doing (as in census data analysis)
    • to do stuff I really hate doing (like census data analysis)

    seriously, this is good criteria to use because then you get along with them better because really, they are helping you out

  24. #24
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Plan-it View post
    I understand your concern that this thread is teetering on the verge of attack (sorry about my last post by the way, no harm meant)
    Trust me, that post was meant as a joke. But seriously, i can understand why some folks in the public sector are bitter at consultants because some of them are just fly by night, crank the same junk for each client consultanting firms and frankly, they give consultants a bad name. When i work with municipalities i try to really get involved with them knowing the codes in and out, get a sentiment of the community, as well as just basically know the community so i can do what is best for a community with input from our public sector planners. I think by building good relationships with out public sector clients we drum up repeat business as well as get an overall reputation for working hand in hand with our fellow public sector planners.
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  25. #25
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Plan-it View post
    I understand your concern that this thread is teetering on the verge of attack (sorry about my last post by the way, no harm meant), but I think this can end up being a healthy discussion.

    It is vital for you, in the private sector, to hear unadulterated views on how the public side views your services. It will help you in selling your services, creating products, and delivering a product your clients might want, if you know the concerns that are out there in general.
    I take no offence to either you or RJ. I respect your opinions - in fact, I often share them. I vowed when I became a consultant not to be one of those consultants who delivers boilerplate or simply pretty pictures with no basis in reality. It is very frustrating to me when I lose out on bids to one of these firms. I know firms that insert the same text and images talking about community character in almost every plan they do. I refuse to do that. I want to talk about that community's character, not some abstraction from a textbook. I have also seen too many projects that have wonderful drawings of multi-story mixed use buildings, no parking (or parking garages), green roofs, and all of the other things that planners love. These are the plans that never get implemented and only create friction between the community and developers, because they do not respond to realities of market potential, property owner desires, land assembly, fiscal capacity, infrastructure capacity, and other concerns. Unfortunately, communities seem to often respond to the pretty pictures when reviewing proposals.
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