Managing consultants on think tank research projects

6 April 2018
SERIES OTT Best Practice Series 15 items

[This post is the introduction of the resource “Managing consultants on think tank research projects” by Raymond Struyk. Download the resource.]

Essentially, all think tanks turn to consultants to supplement their resident staff. Often a think tank undertakes a project for which it has some of the required experts but not all, and it adds a consultant with the missing expertise to the project team. Less frequently, consultants are added to augment the number of experts working on a project, even though the think tank has technical capacity in all the necessary fields.

Consultants engaged to work on a specific project can provide expertise on a narrow issue, such as the details of the appropriate econometric technique to be employed. They can also work closely with resident staff, providing guidance on an episodic basis. Alternatively, a consultant can be assigned to execute a nearly free-standing part of a project and carry out the work largely independently and submit a report on the work done.

In all cases the think tank must execute five tasks well to obtain a good product efficiently: (1) use a strong contract and prepare a comprehensive Terms of Reference (TOR); (2) carefully select the consultant; (3) estimate and negotiate the consultant’s payment; (4) actively monitor the consultant’s progress, especially where the task is large or spread over several months; and, (5) exercise rigorous quality control over the draft products it receives.

This post focuses on managing individual consultants, as opposed to consulting firms, engaged to carry out major tasks largely independently, ranging from executing analytic tasks to being the sole author of major reports. To make the discussion more precise I use a specific case: the think tank hires a consultant to write a report that is part of a larger project, and she will work nearly full time on the task for four months.

This post addresses the tasks listed in the previous paragraph except identifying the right consultant for a task.

The stakes for hiring a consultant are high: a poor-quality product creates a major problem for the think tank which then has to work with the consultant on significant corrections or organize a re-do. At a minimum, staff time must be devoted to working closely with the consultant on revisions. The worst case, when the work must be redone, involves an expensive process of recruiting another analyst, managing that person, and critically reviewing the product. Whether a repair or replacement, significant management and financial costs are incurred by the think tank; often the delivery date for the product is missed, creating reputational costs.

Despite hiring and managing consultants being a common task, learning to do so is essentially learned on-the-job. Researchers certainly are not prepared at university for writing strong TORs and probably not much better prepared for defining the LOE (level of effort) needed for common consulting assignments.

Likewise, there is little literature to consult (there is a substantial void in the guidance available in the think tank human resource management literature). An energetic search for relevant articles and books on Google Scholar and other sites yielded few even tangentially relevant documents.+

Hence, my objective is to lay out strong practices for think tanks in managing individual consultants based on two primary sources of hands-on experience. First, I consulted in detail with highly experienced research managers at three think tanks widely regarded as well-managed about their own practices and which tasks they view as the most critical in managing consultants. The managers provided copies of the contracts and forms their institutes use with consultants. These think tanks are: the Urban Institute, the Results for Development Institute, and the Institute for Urban Economics. The first two are large organizations (measured by staff size, headcounts range from 150 to about 500) located in the U.S. The last is in Russia with a staff of about 30, although its management practices were developed when its head count was around 100.+ In the following pages, they are referred to collectively as participating think tanks. The second source is my own successes and disappointments in hiring and managing consultants in the U.S. and in a dozen transition and developing countries.

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This document is a part of the new OTT Best Practices Series. If you would like to submit a piece on best practices for research and policy institutes, please get in touch.