We were Consultants Once, and Young
Mercenaries are useless, disunited, unfaithful They have nothing more to keep them in a battle Other than a meager wage Which is just about enough to make them wanna kill for you But never enough to make them wanna die for yaOn a fairly regular basis, we are contacted by consultants, hired by one level of government or another, looking for data for research they have been hired to conduct, for whatever obscure bureaucratic reason. A lot of the time, they are hoping that we have all the data they want, all nicely packaged to be burped up for them so they don't have to do much, you know, work; the problem is, we very rarely do. This is not because we don’t collect data; on the contrary, we are drenched in statistics and information and reports; it is just that we understand what we do in fundamentally different ways than government does, and most certainly than consultants do. Especially consultants, because in my experience, consultants, at least when contracted to do stuff in my industry, really understand very little indeed.John Cale
Now before I go any further I should talk about consultants a little, because I am going to say some harsh things, and they should be put in context. I’ve been a consultant myself, you see, and can appreciate their point of view. I did a bunch of consulting once upon a time on Employment Equity, and Job Development Programs for various disadvantaged groups, and on database systems for both the above. It left no lasting legacy at all, as I knew it would. Consultants, are just no good.
I quit doing it, mostly, because of two reasons.
A) While it can be extremely lucrative when you are working, the amount of time and crap you go through to get a contract has to be factored in as well, and then it can be not quite so lucrative after all. To survive in that business, you basically have to attain to sharkhood: tireless endless motion, participation in feeding frenzies, and the frequent disappointment of the predator. (I can remember some nature show or other that gave totally startling but intuitively obvious statistics on big predator chases: they chase far more often than they catch. Me, I think I would far rather graze, it is a little less precarious, and I'll take the long side of the odds on a predator chase, thankyou.)
B) Because I got tired of playing the game; I had something close to ethical or self-respect issues. What I discovered was, as a consultant your employer very rarely wants you to actually contribute your expertise and help them out with something you can contribute that they can’t. No, most of the time, they want you to provide justification for something they are doing, or not doing, already, or more rarely, something they plan to do anyway.
Or they want to have you do something pretty much anything (just so long as it is innocuous enough that it carries no real weight other than page counts) just so that they can say something or other was done, when acutally, nothing really was.
What this means is that the actual quality of your work is pretty much irrelevant; the only thing that counts is that you give them what they need, and mostly, don’t come up with anything that might actually rock any boats in any way (or very rarely, give them something that rocks the boat in a very particular direction that they can use as an excuse to take a meat-axe to something they want to; unpleasant work, that).
I think I consulted twice in cases where someone actually wanted to change something and required my expertise; and one of those ended up like 50% or more pro bono. Us socially conscious types, we can be exploited all to crazy if you are on the side of our angels.
Now I am not sure it is unethical to take money from somebody foolishly willing to give it to you for totally unproductive work; I just found it distasteful, and not time well spent. And essentially, I was selling my good name; staying in the business meant exchanging my good name for actually knowing how to do stuff, for a good name as a cooperative "go to" guy. Besides which, I was working in areas where I really did want to help, but knew what I was doing was going to be of no help to anybody, other than the funder, the consultants, and the organization, and not the disadvantaged that actually needed help. But at least I knew about the area I was consulting in. Most of the consultants I work with these days know damn all about the work, or much of anything really, just how to write a proposal and look good.
Which leads to the first thing they always want to do: have a Focus Group or two. Now focus groups, used properly, are good tools. They are good at the beginning of a study, for leading you to or verifying the questions you need to ask in your study; and at the end, if carefully enough selected and managed, to explore particular areas in more depth, and test out hypotheses. But both uses happen quite rarely; often, focus groups are the study, they are the source of the data, and they are held for the sake of being able to say they were held, which makes everything legitimate. Even in this day and age, who isn't impressed sitting behind the cool two way mirror eating cheese and crackers and watching the Performance?
From an end product point of view, the real problem is the tendency to uncritically include random comments from focus group individuals as actual data, ie a single individual representing nobody and no-one in a strange and uncontrolled situation, very non-randomly selected, commenting on matters they have never really thought about before, as matters of fact. It is all justified in the name of including the voices of the studied, but really, it is including the voice of a single, perhaps deeply uninformed, or deeply non-reflective, or deeply attached to another agenda, into the data, and highlighting it as fact.
You can always find someone in a crowd that will say what you want them to; all too often that is the point of a focus group.
But this has become deeply ingrained: when you want to know something about social services or social needs or something like that, and you really have no direct experience with those kinds of things, what you do is hold some focus groups and/or a survey. You do those basic exercises as a consultant, in a framework by whoever is paying you, and your job is done and you did the report and everybody is happy and anybody that thinks the work you did will have any impact on anything in any real sense is a fool.
Because if you do real work helping people, you don't survey them on whether, say, their housing needs are being met; you track whether they are actually living in accommodation somewhere. You don't survey them to see if they feel their food issues are adequately addressed, you make sure that some groceries are making their way into the household.
Frankly, you don't give a shit how they feel about it, you care if they actually have a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. Those are real outcomes, not what some damn fool focus group tells you. And the proof is in the pudding as it were: if they get into trouble again, lose their house or run out of food, do they come back to you, or go elsewhere? Recidivism is a two edged sword, my consultant friends, especially in a totall voluntary, non-government sector like mine.
Now you'd think that this diatribe of mine was inspired by getting a bad consultant report, which was inspired by some evil enemy sticking it to me through a soul-less consultant using stupid focus groups.
Far from it. I can manipulate the selection and direction of a focus group as well or better than the next consultant, and we pretty unfailingly get fantastic reports, because we know enough to make sure (uh, "negotiate" so that) the consultant and funder understand the real terms of reference before they start, which is the whole point really.
No, what I deeply resent is the oceans of time that I have to put into playing these games. Now it is kind of my job, as a manager, to screen the people we have doing actual productive work that makes the world a better place, from this kind of entropy, but that is not all of my job, and there is quite a bit more I could be doing if I weren't hewing statistical wood and fetching focus group water all the time.
I resent it, but perhaps it is a little bit of Karma. I was a Consultant once myself...