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Personal development Consulting firms

Over-paid, Over-rated, and Over-used

From width=When I started working in development, I idolised development consultants. They seemed such awe-inspiring figures; wise, glamorous, and with experience seeping from every pore. Now I work as a development consultant myself. The awe has faded, and been replaced with an increasing concerned that the growth of consultancy is a serious threat to the effectiveness of the aid sector.

Consultancy is a good solution when a task requires specialist expertise, or benefits from an external perspective. It is damaging and ineffective, however, when consultants replace internal staff rather than support them. For example, rather than investing in expertise in monitoring and evaluation, organisations might choose to bring in a consultant for a few months. They use consultancy as a way to avoid spending the money needed to do their job properly.

This allows organisations to reduce their overheads. While a consultant can easily get double the pay of an equivalent full time staff member, they also don’t get holiday, sick pay, management, training, and a whole host of other perks. This allows the organisation to directly reduce overheads, for example by firing their HR department. Funders also often allow organisations to count consultants as a programme cost, while full time staff count as administrative costs. If you hire a staff member with expertise in child protection, you look inefficient and bureaucratic. If you hire a consultant at twice the cost you look dynamic and action orientated.

Moreover, a reliance on consultants fits very well into a funding environment based on short term and unpredictable funding for projects. Full-time staff are a real headache; when the project finishes, how would you pay their salaries? Far better to hire consultants on short-term contracts, who can be dispensed with once the project is over.

This is a problem because most consultants are rubbish. I’m sorry to generalise – of course, there are many fantastic, dedicated and intelligent consultants. But in my experience, the majority simply don’t add much value. This is for two reasons. Firstly, consultants are much less able than full time staff to actually help an organisation make changes. While full time staff can learn how an organisation works and roll out changes over time, consultants are expected to implement changes overnight. It’s easy for a consultant to produce ‘deliverables’ – whether in the form of reports, frameworks or workshops – but much harder to ensure that this actually leads to improvements in the way the organisation works.



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