Consultants Run Amok

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Dilbert consultant cartoon

As the old saw says, a consultant is someone who comes in to solve a problem and stays around long enough to become part of it. So how many consultants’ reports does it take for council to figure out we’re spending too much money on consultants’ reports?

More than three, apparently.

Three is the number of consultants’ reports included in the preliminary budget alone (the one that recommends raising your taxes almost 4% and gives council another pay increase as a reward for doing so…!).

Three consultants’ reports… one would be an unprecedented number in a small town town budget. Three is, well, staggering. The inefficiency just screams aloud.

Taxpayers have to ask: why does this council need to spend our money on so many outside consultants? And why are the local media silent on this abuse of our tax dollars?

In its first year, this council has used more outside consultants to tell it what to think than most councils use in their entire terms. And most of what these consultants have produced is little more than shredder-ready claptrap designed to bolster staff agendas and decisions already made for council by staff.

It’s unlikely those at the council table even bothered to read these reports cover-to-cover. Certainly none at the table bothered to question their numbers or conclusions. That would require critical thinking and analysis, both of which run counter to the wishes of the admin staff and would make the consultants’ reports appear meaningless.

After all, why bother to hire consultants if all council is going to do is ask them difficult questions and think for themselves?

Dilbert on consultants

Starting with council’s first month, when it received the dangerously flawed consultant’s report about the shared service agreement with Collus, this council has received one after another flawed, misleading or rubbish reports aimed solely at directing them how to think and to vote along staff-chosen lines.

What’s most telling about that first report is that while council and the public got copies of the damning report, the responses, the criticisms and numerous corrections – more than 100 pages of them – that dismantled its arguments and provided the correct data were kept secret. The local media didn’t even bother to request a copy, let alone report on it.

Only one copy of the critical responses was made by staff, and that was done only under pressure, placed in council’s mail room and marked “confidential” – staying there only for a few days before the actual meeting. Without, of course, telling councillors it was there.

Councillors couldn’t take it home to study and, since few actually even read their agendas, it was unlikely more than one bothered to even open it. The public and the media never got to read the reaction to the report’s misleading claims or the numerous corrections.

But that report led to the dismantling of the previously excellent, 150-year-old relationship with Collus. As they say:

A consultant is someone who is called in at the last moment and paid enormous amounts of money to assign the blame.

That report was quickly followed by a hiring another consultant to lead the so-called community-based strategic plan process, which wasn’t a strategic plan at all. It ended up a bungled, impractical, committee-based wish list with no proper timelines, costs, measurables or goals. The main success in the process was in developing a logo for the report that looks likes an angry blue ant. Woo hoo!

Then there was the wastewater and shared services report presented in June by BMA (a company whose name crops up on several recent reports to council, sparking questions about who on staff are their friends…). This report prompted the CAO to promise council a savings of more than $700,000 a year if its recommendations were followed.

That has since proven more woo-hoo. Its recommendations have done little more than damage staff moral, hurt relations with our civic partner, Collus-Powerstream, and damaged the town’s reputation.

In the 2016 budget, that promised $706,521 has mysteriously vanished. Not mentioned even once. The cost of implementing those recommendations look instead like they will cost the taxpayer a lot – millions, perhaps – instead of saving as much as a nickel.

One thing you’ll never hear a consultant say:

How about paying us based on the success of the project?

Then there’s the ‘social media consultant” that was approved by council in October. But don’t we already have a communications director? Doesn’t that director have social media skills? So why do we need to hire another one? And what will that cost taxpayers?

Another thing no consultant ever told a client:

Everything looks okay to me. I don’t need to bill you because I didn’t find any opportunities here.

Now, I understand the reason for hiring some consultants: small municipalities don’t always have the in-house resources or expertise to provide all the answers. But we do have the expertise to prepare our own budgets and have done so for the past 150-odd years before this council and this CAO arrived.

We have a highly-qualified treasurer and people in the finance department with a respectable set of skills. So why hire someone outside to do their job?

And why did we need three consultant’s reports? What did that cost taxpayers?

Our CAO directs the process, and after years in municipal government should have some skills to bring to the table. I’m sure he has some. I just haven’t been able to identify any. Aside, that is, from hiring outsiders and expensive lawyers.*

Plus we have a local town auditor who could have commented on the budget. But apparently staff prefer outsiders to local sources. And council bobbleheads nod along with their choices.

The three reports in the prelim budget are:

  • Assessment of the town’s financial health, Nov. 2015 by BMA Management Consultants (this is an update of the report presented in 2014, on which I commented back then – the new report shares the previous edition’s flaws);
  • Preliminary assessment and revenue growth report by Municipal Tax Equity consultants, marked “confidential,” Oct. 2015, and
  • Budget policy considerations, also by BMA, Nov. 2015.

Unlike in previous terms, this council has not seen a detailled, line-by-line analysis of the town’s finances, just the synopsis and the consultants’ analyses. In other words: this council doesn’t have the full data it needs to make an informed decision. It only has the recommendations from the consultants as to how council should run the town and levy our taxes.

Which, of course, the admin staff support, since they probably told the consultants what they wanted the reports to say. But where is the outrage over being kept in the dark by staff?

A consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, and then keeps your watch.

When budget deliberations and all the figures therein are public, why would council receive a report marked “confidential”? Apparently because, after nailing the coffin on accountability and transparency this term, council wants to drive a stake through the heart of openness, too.

Aside from the fact that reading these consultants’ reports is like wading through treacle**  they are heavily laced with both jargon and irrelevancies – a few key points emerge from the obscuring goop. These tend to get overlooked or buried when they conflict with the admin’s pre-determined conclusions or desires. And neither council nor the the media ever pick up on them.

First is that Collingwood is already seriously overtaxed – the highest among all the other comparator municipalities chosen as peers. Our per-capita levy is more than double that of the lowest of the eight peers (p. 25) and our levy per $100,000 of assessment is sixth highest among the eight. We can’t afford to be taxed any more.

Second is that the average household income is lower than four of the seven comparator municipalities. Plus we have a higher-than-average population of seniors and that means more people on fixed incomes. Raising taxes will hurt us considerably.

Third is that council plans to tax us even more in 2016.

Fourth: we have had two years of significant operating surplus (thanks to the sound financial policies set in motion by the previous council). This should mean no tax increases those years. But despite this, council raised taxes last year and is planning an even higher tax increase in 2016.

Fifth: our financial situation at the start of this term was good and solid. Our debt had been significantly reduced. The clear trend in debt from 2010 to 2014 was downward. No sky-is-falling fear tactics or phony “internal loans” gibberish will change the fact that last term council paid off a large portion of its inherited debt while keeping taxes low. Last term, too, our overall financial position moved from minus $146 per capita to plus $369 per capita (p. 22). We also reduced the amount of uncollected property taxes from 12% in 2009 to 8% in 2014.

One has yet to see if this council can continue to maintain the positive financial trends set last term. I guess it depends on what staff tell council to do. Given the tenor of the reports attached to the preliminary budget, and the bobbleheads at the table who nod with every staff demand, I’m not hopeful.

~~~~~

* While we’re at it, why is the town spending so much money on lawyers? We seem to be hiring a lot of them this year. The lawyer who has been looking into the shared service agreement for most of the past year, allegedly bills $900 an hour. That’s 50% more than what we were paying last term for one of the best legal firms in Ontario. And I haven’t seen a single result of that money come to the public forum.

** Question: Why did the chicken cross the road?

The consultant’s report: Deregulation of the chicken’s side of the road was threatening its dominant market position. The chicken was faced with significant challenges to create and develop the core competencies required for the newly competitive market. Location translation was identified as the value-added low-hanging fruit in the process-decision matrix.

Our consulting firm, in a partnering relationship with the client, helped the chicken by rethinking its physical distribution strategy and implementation processes. Using the Poultry Integration Model (PIM), our consulting firm attained client buy-in and helped the chicken use its skills, methodologies, knowledge, capital and experiences to align the chicken’s people, processes and technology in support of its overall strategy within a Program Management framework.

Critical to appropriate analysis of pre-adaptation location changes that occur within and between location translation events is the separation of changes driven by economic need from those associated with reassessment of location and location phase-in of the cross-median process. On an annualized basis, the net gain or loss in location is measured against the total distance travelled during the assessment period, subject to capping provisions, to facilitate the quantification of annualized location translation growth and utilization rate.

Our consulting convened a diverse cross-spectrum of road analysts and best chickens along with our consulting firm with deep skills in the transportation industry to engage in a two-day itinerary of meetings to identify optimal deliverables. These meetings leveraged their personal knowledge capital, both tacit and explicit, and to enable them to synergize with each other in order to achieve the implicit goals of delivering and successfully architecting and implementing an enterprise-wide value framework across the continuum of poultry cross-median processes.

The meeting was held in a park-like setting, enabling and creating an impactful environment which was strategically based, industry-focused, and built upon a consistent, clear, and unified market message and aligned with the chicken’s mission, vision, and core values. This was conducive towards the creation of a total business integration solution.

Our consulting firm helped the chicken change its median-engagement strategy and location translation processes to become more successful, location-wise.

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