Training & Education

Consultants: When, Why and How to Hire Them

While there is less federal funding available to hire consultants, they remain a viable option for governments looking to supplement their efforts with additional staff and expertise.

One of the trends that emerged after 9/11 was the widespread use of consultants for emergency management and homeland security. This was made possible by the huge increase in federal funding from a variety of homeland security grant programs that grew steadily and remained funded longer than anyone expected. 

These funds targeted certain disciplines or purposes. Dedicated grant programs were instituted for emergency management, homeland security, the fire service, law enforcement, public health, hospitals, catastrophic planning, public transportation and port security, to name some of the more significant ones. 

This bonanza in funding provided an unheard of amount of money to state and local programs, generally $3.2 billion a year for efforts aimed at preventing or responding to terrorist events. After Hurricane Katrina, more flexibility was provided for “dual use” of funds so that the grant dollars could also target natural hazard risks as long as they had a nexus to countering terrorism. 

There have been many changes in emphasis over the years as different grant streams, programs or urban areas gained prominence. There was some consolidation of grant funds. Law enforcement, for instance, lost its dedicated stream of financing while maintaining a federal mandate that a percentage of funding be allocated to law enforcement programs. 

The one thing that has remained continuous is the use of a variety of consulting firms to provide expertise and staff to augment the individual efforts of state and local emergency management and homeland security programs. While there is less federal funding available to hire consultants, they remain a viable option for governments and even businesses looking to supplement their efforts with additional staff and expertise.

The prime reasons organizations seek to hire consultants boil down to two primary issues: Either a jurisdiction does not have the expertise on its staff or there are insufficient staff resources and time to complete work that’s vital to the organization’s mission. A key element, which federal grant programs provide, is funding for procurement and payment of consultants. Without the money, organizations will either defer a project, or add it to the pile of work waiting to be done and tackle it as time or priorities permit.

Soliciting Bids

With funding in hand, the challenge becomes finding the right firm to do the job. Governments are constrained by procurement rules as to how they can obtain consulting services. “A request for proposal (RFP) usually requires a combination of qualifications (demonstration of experience and past performance), a technical approach (how the consulting firm will accomplish the required deliverables), and an estimated price. A request for qualifications (RFQ) usually requires only a demonstration of past performance,” Gisele Parry, a consultant with Science Applications International Corp., said through email. “We also often see requests for information (RFI). This is a good method for organizations that are unclear about how to address a problem and simply want ideas on potential solutions. The organization may also request that responders provide thoughts on how much it would cost to implement their proposed solution. The organization can then use this information to develop a grant application, budget request and an RFP,” she said.

Writing a good RFP is not simple. “There are a couple of mistakes that I have seen time after time that make writing a responsive proposal difficult if not impossible,” said John Milam, CEO of Dynamis, a Virginia-based consulting firm. “The first is the RFP where the writer can’t articulate what the requirements really are and they come out jumbled or internally inconsistent,” he said. “The second mistake is the tendency to cut and paste from other RFPs.”

Tips for Writing RFPs

A good RFP is detailed but not extraneous. “Be specific, providing as much detail as possible about the statement of project requirements,” said Butch Colvin, president of Maritime International Security & Training. “Provide, if possible, a range of budget to support the statement of work elements.”

Parry said she doesn’t recommend setting a page limit but values conciseness. “Proposing firms understand that producing lengthy proposals does not score more points and can even be detrimental to their offer. I recommend not setting a page limit. Instead, include in the proposal directions that concise proposals are recommended.”

Eric Holdeman  |  Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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