OK this is a bit internal, but I thought it was interesting. We had a great 3 day session in Oxford last week with our rapidly expanding Global Research Team (see right – the prominent fella in the front is Martin Walsh, who’s our Global Research Adviser and your best point of contact if you want to talk to them). They’re a bunch of bright sparks from every corner of the globe with a big challenge: to make sure Oxfam’s thinking, programming and advocacy is informed by the best possible evidence. That means training and supporting other staff (lots of people in Oxfam commission or conduct research), working with partners who commission research, sometimes with Oxfam money, plus (increasingly) seeking research funding [note to all you academics out there – need a partner for your next research proposal with people and contacts on the ground and a strong global communications and advocacy capacity? Please form an orderly queue…..]
So what (other than the general excitement at seeing the team all together) stood out from the conversation (or at least the bit of the meeting which I managed to join)? Above all, just how hard it is to get good results from consultants: the standard model for development research is to outsource it to specialist researchers. Some of them are local, some are expats, and all of them present a tricky management task. Often they are really expensive, with fees inflated by big aid donors all desperate for quality analysis. Many are unreliable, reporting late and often not sticking to the terms of reference. And then they disappear with all that acquired knowledge and all you have to show for your money is a bit of paper and a Word document.
It doesn’t have to be like that – I know and have worked with some great consultants. We’ve though a lot about this and even published a book on it, but it doesn’t seem to get any easier. So what makes sure you get value for money?First, be clear why you are putting everyone through this. Commission research to answer clear questions, not to avoid decisions – it should never be a substitute for direction, or a means of prevarication.
Second, take time to find the right consultant; ask around; have preliminary chats with possible candidates; don’t just call the person you always use. Insist on competitive bids (although sometimes you have to skip that if a local guru is clearly the right person for the job and will tell you to get lost if you demand lots of CVs and form-filling). As with any appointment, hiring the right person is 90% of the battle.
Third, take time on the briefing: write very specific Terms of Reference, avoiding broad questions like ‘what is the role of agriculture in country X’ that allow them to regurgitate the literature and don’t help you take decisions. Don’t ask them to do your job for you (‘design an advocacy campaign on Y’).
Finally, don’t give them a contract and say ‘come back when you have a draft report’ – you need regular contact to avoid nasty surprises. Here are some top tips from my colleague Kate Raworth:
As research manager, your attitude should be “eyes on, but hands off” – that is, engaged in the process but not trying to influence the actual findings.
Is there a possibility for any staff or interns to work alongside the researcher for part of the work, to learn from them, and to get involved in the issues?
Ask the consultant to present an early draft of the findings to a group of colleagues. Discuss the results and help the researcher keep focused on the key questions (but don’t be tempted to add new questions now – it is not fair to add to the TOR unless you extend the contract).
When commenting on the first draft of the report, make sure you don’t simply ask a list of new questions. Look back to the TOR: have these original questions been answered? What other specific information is needed to complete the answer?
Do all that, and you’ll often get good results, but not always. We should also explore the alternatives, like hiring staff on short term contracts as a (perhaps) more manageable and cheaper alternative. We need to get better at working with PhDs and other forms of slave labour students – their language and timescale is often just so different from our own that we don’t manage to sort anything out. Has anyone worked out how to collaborate to both sides’ benefit? What about commissioning high-end local journalists instead, given that sometimes everything we commission seems to need a rewrite into more accessible language?
And often we are not even the ones commissioning the research. Instead, we are funding partner NGOs who in turn hire consultants, and there the challenge is even greater, especially with partners who are understandably prickly about funders trying to backseat drive and micromanage. How to ensure quality control without Oxfam control? Lessons there include being proactive – offer to go and talk to partners, take part in meetings etc. Building relationships with both partners and their consultants is more likely to work than trying to order people about. Accompanying partners or consultants on a field trip can be a great way to build relationships and see what is going on.
And just in case you think I’m laying all the blame on them, a shout out to all those consultants out there: what advice would you give NGOs and agencies about how to be better research contractors?
And here’s a Dilbert strip about management consultants – not the same thing at all, but who cares?