Reasons to hire an engagement consultant rather than using your own staff
Increasingly organisations in a number of sectors are recognising the value of allocating resources to gathering insights from, and working more closely alongside, local communities. The resource required can often mean bringing in an experienced contractor or consultant. Some have learnt the hard way that under resourcing public and stakeholder engagement can introduce project risk and can mean that contracts and legal duties to involve are not fulfilled. The question then becomes one of how to resource engagement and insights activities effectively whilst balancing staff workloads and departmental budgets. Without being properly resourced engagement efforts might not meet local community and stakeholder needs or expectations and create frustration both internally and externally. Reputational damage is then a real possibility.
The work of engaging with community members and stakeholders on a project or initiative usually requires staff to reprioritise their job responsibilities to allocate sufficient resources. Existing staff can often lack the specific skills, expertise and time required to undertake the work required in a sufficiently thorough and inclusive way. Hiring an engagement consultant can have the effect of adding a temporary, highly skilled human resource that can bring the focus and dedication needed. This adds specific engagement expertise to an existing staff team without placing a significant burden on already stretched employees. An independent consultant can be allocated accountability for managing clear project timelines and deliverables, which will help to ensure that any specific activities are completed and associated deadlines are met.
Another issue to consider when deciding whether or not to contract an outside resource for your engagement project is whether you think there is any potential for controversy. Is your project likely to attract a lot of opposing views? Might a neutral voice be better at managing these? Community members or stakeholders might have pre-existing negativity towards employed staff because of past experiences of services from your organisation. Stakeholders can also sometimes avoid being honest in giving their views because they don’t want to get existing staff into trouble or are fearful of their care or services being affected where a staff member has been criticised. A consultant can be a neutral, third party in these instances who can create and then drive forward an unbiased process. It can often be easier for the engagement consultant to do this rather than an existing employee. This neutrality adds credibility not only to the engagement or co-production process but also to any findings and outcomes.
Five tips to get the most out of your engagement consultant:
Set clear parameters around what you expect the engagement professional to do, with clear deadlines and a nominated senior manager for them to liaise with. You can then agree how many days work this will require from them.
Be clear about what internal resources are available to them and how they are to be accessed. This could include access to colleagues in other departments but also to IT systems, funding for community events etc. Ensure the consultant has access to any design, research, analysis and other relevant resources.
Have regular communication with your consultant about the progress of the work. Set regular catch-up meetings with the nominated manager to discuss hurdles and solutions. Ensure regular communication with any wider team of colleagues relevant to the project.
Set expectations with the consultant around capacity building and learning for your existing staff team to ensure sustainability beyond the time period you have contracted the consultant.
Take a partnership approach - learning from them and they will also learn from you.
The optimum relationship with an engagement consultant will be one where all involved are clear on their roles and what they bring to the project. Any surprises or bumps in the road can then be dealt with collectively through clear communication and transparency.