I am sure you have heard the joke, “What do you call an expert with a briefcase who travels more than 50 miles to tell you things you already know? A consultant.”
While we all recognize the tongue-in-cheek humor in that joke, there can also be some degree of truth in it. The bottom line is that at some point in your transportation career, you may have the need to interact with a consultant or possibly work with one via a directive. Either way, the process can be productive and yield valuable information if you take a few steps to be prepared, proactive, and positive during the relationship. This article will offer you some tools to help you navigate your next project involving a transportation consultant.
Why a consultant?
There is generally only one time when you should worry about a consultant working with your operation. That is when you didn’t request or suggest hiring the consultant. If your board or school district suggests bringing in a consultant to look at your operation or evaluate your practices and service levels, most of the time this should raise some concerns on your part. When this happens, often it is generated by complaints from internal or external stakeholders, a recent serious incident or accident, or questions about the costs of running your operation. In this case you should meet with the people you report to and be very supportive of this project, but at the same time try to identify what has motivated this and begin to address any concerns as soon as possible before the consultant arrives.
On the flip side, there are many times when you may actually suggest bringing in a consultant to your bosses. These scenarios can involve times when you are running very short on operational or managerial staff and a consultant can either validate the need for increased staffing or fill in temporary roles to complete special projects like re-districting or “what if” routing. A consultant may be helpful if your requests for joint operations or shared services, new buses, facility expansion, or construction or other infrastructure improvements have been falling on deaf ears. An external consultant can help you in building a case for these improvements or changes based on data and facts.
Another important area in which a consultant can assist with running your operation is if you are seeking to make historic changes, such as changing policies that may cause backlash from parents or principals, or if you are potentially trying to reduce staff who may be deeply rooted in the community or labor unions. Using a consultant to evaluate these scenarios and then validate your needs by recommending said changes as action items in their report can provide you the backing when others may push back against such changes.
You can go it alone and say, “I recommend this change.” However, you are often far more successful when saying, “Our consultant in his [or her] report recommended this change as an action item, and I also support and recommend this."
"Try to get a flat rate, lump sum price for any project. ... This provides you a clear benchmark for budgeting, and a way for you to evaluate whether the consultant’s work came in on time and on budget."
How do you select a consultant?
You probably are not going to open your local Yellow Pages and find a suitable school transportation consultant. While there are many “business consultants” who will try to win your job with a long list of school and private sector clients, school transportation is a very specific niche. To get a high quality report and data that will be useful, the consultant should have some operational experience with a school transportation department. To further narrow the search for the right fit, specific experience with your type of operation, such as with a contract carrier or experience with district-owned fleets, should be required.
In most cases, some state-specific knowledge is required of the consultant as well, since laws, regulations, and state aid formulas may differ from state to state. A simple Google search or reaching out to other school districts may help you find the right consultant.
You should also check with your legal counsel prior to seeking the consultant. Some states view consultants as a professional service, in which the relationship and confidentiality are most important. Some states may require you to issue an RFP or sealed bid to viable consultants. Checking with counsel can also help prevent you from making an embarrassing mistake up front that could potentially invalidate the integrity of your desired project or task.
As you evaluate interested consultants, look over some of their reports. While there often is some confidentiality to consulting, at least ask for some sample pages if prospective consultants can’t provide you with entire reports as examples of their work. More importantly, ask them to provide you with a list of some clients who have used them in which their reports or recommendations have resulted in successfully implemented outcomes. Then, call those clients to chat about their overall satisfaction with working with the consultant and how the changes are going.
What about cost?
Consulting isn’t cheap. When you have a full-time employee who lives nearby and is at work every day, you can control costs. With consultants who work on short projects all over geographic regions, costs can rise quickly. These projects also often require travel, hotels, and meals. In most cases, consulting is hourly based, so even small projects can be costly. I feel it is very important to nail down the scope of the project, what deliverables you are seeking at the end, and some very clear caps on hours and incidentals right up front. If at all possible, try to get a flat rate, lump sum price for any project. An example of this would be an evaluation of your fleet and recommended bus replacement schedule, done at $100 per hour, which is potentially open-ended, plus incidentals, which can run up a bill, versus the same project being quoted at $2,500 flat, plus travel, hotel, and meals. This provides you a clear benchmark for budgeting, and a way to evaluate whether the consultant’s work came in on time and on budget.
Any time you work with a consultant, it is important to outline what the expected deliverables will be. In most cases, you will want a full written report, both in print and electronic, and an in-person PowerPoint presentation done by the consultant at delivery. The in-person presentation is important because simply reading the report doesn’t give you a complete picture. The presentation gives the consultant an opportunity to let you know what they were thinking as they arrived at conclusions and made recommendations.
Regarding deliverables, I have two additional thoughts. First of all, be careful in specifying if you want multiple copies of a printed report. Consultants will charge a retail price for each printed and bound report, versus you simply printing the electronic version for stakeholders or making it available on your website or intranet. Additionally, draft reports can delay the project and lend themselves to data manipulation. If you simply want a draft report to “fact check,” that is fine. But if you or your stakeholders want drafts to redact recommendations, soften them, or dumb down the report, you have to ask yourself why you are even hiring a consultant in the first place. You should want honest and accurate information from your consultant to help you move in a certain direction.
No change is OK
On average, a thorough consulting project takes about six months to complete. People wait with great anticipation to hear what the consultant has to say. Often, consultants themselves get caught up in the fact that they have to come up with something substantial to fill the pages and make the project seem worth the money you have spent. Yes, most of the time, these reports fill over 100 pages and yield many action items. However, there are times when the report comes back thin, in a 1-inch binder. In these cases, the consultant may be recommending “no change,” or validating that your operation is in good shape and running efficiently. This is good news. Celebrate this, share it, and press on.
I welcome your feedback, comments, or constructive criticism, and I’m happy to provide advice via email at MPDBUS1@aol.com.