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In the 21st century, consultants are an increasingly prominent ingredient in public services. Sometimes they attract critical comment, as though they are merely parasites, exploiting rather than contributing to these services. Yet consultants are often sought by the agencies providing services. People who work in public services are likely to encounter consultants occupying roles formerly carried out by full-time employees of central or local government. We arrived at one local authority to find that the position of director of children’s services was occupied, temporarily, by a full-time consultant, recruited on a medium term contract and paid for by the local authority. Consultants, therefore, have become integral to the workforce of public services. Yet there is a need to understand better what the nature of consultancy is and, from the viewpoint of consultants, how it is carried out. Also, there is increasingly in the 21st century a need to understand how consultancy can be directed towards meeting the needs, and satisfying the wishes and demands, of citizens. The rhetoric of government policy, after all, is that public services should be person-centred, and, in many senses, person-led, patient-led, user-led, carer-led, or as we would call it in this book spanning public services as a whole, citizen-led.

As we reflected on more than 25 years’ work, much of it together, as consultants across many areas of public services – from the criminal justice system to health and social services, in different sectors of education and training, from colleges to universities including The Open University, and in government agencies – we discovered a major gap in the literature on consultancy, which seems on the whole to be geared towards the requirements of private industry and commerce rather than towards public services.

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We deal in this chapter with what is often called the pre-contract phase of consultancy. It is, by definition, preliminary, and is characterised by the activity of negotiation. We do not imply, however, that negotiation only happens at the start. On the contrary, negotiation is likely to continue throughout the entire life of the consultancy, but from our experience it is likely to be heightened during this early period.

We have already acknowledged that a consultancy starts its life before birth, at the preparation stage. However, there is a more visible beginning, at the point where the consultants and clients begin negotiating. This is often referred to as the ‘pre-contract phase’.

Consultancies begin in different ways, affected substantially by their size and degree of formality. The larger and more formally developed consultancies are generated at senior level in central and local government, an in the NHS, are advertised and go through a process of tendering. There are smaller consultancies that lead to local, but still formal, agreements between consultants and clients. There are also some consultancy arrangements that are informal, where a fee probably changes hands without much being written down apart from the invoice from the consultant and the receipt when the fee is received.

What is significant, however, is that consultancy is a process, and every consultancy goes through its own unique life course, from beginning to end. Sometimes it is impossible to specify when the beginning actually begins and when the end takes place, since the work may grow out of previous work and may lead on to other projects.

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This chapter deals with what is entailed in the crucial stage of agreeing the contract. It is tempting to regard this as simply a technical and administrative matter, but nothing could be further from the reality. The fact is that by the time the consultancy is into the negotiating, pre-contract phase, for better or worse, it has already begun. It is vital that as consultants we have made all our preparations well before the contracting stage, whatever outcome is likely. In our experience, something like two out of three possible consultancies do not reach fruition as a viable contract. This is a fact we live with and accept as part of the sector in which we work. So, we include in this chapter the two aspects of developing our resources as critical and self-critical consultants and completing the contract for the consultancy. It is also important for the consultant to include in the planning the ways and means by which the changes or other initiatives will be sustained, monitored, evaluated and reported on, as well as, of course, having an exit strategy for the consultant (see Chapter Six).

The better we know people and the more straightforward the consultancy task seems to be, the more tempting it may be, the more disastrous may be the consequences of not having a contract. Consultancies seldom take place over very short periods and there is a likelihood that either somebody will forget or have a different recall of a verbal agreement. Key members of staff, as well as participating citizens, may change during the course of a contract, making some form of written agreement advisable.

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Engagement is a subject that hardly gets a mention in many consultancy books. Perhaps this is because the preparation of the contract seems to many people to be the most important phase of the work, before the major implementation of the consultancy. We regard the need to engage with the clients and citizens involved in different ways in public services as absolutely crucial to the success of a consultancy. It is important to take time to consider carefully the different individuals and groups with a stake in the particular area of public services being tackled. That is why this chapter is one of the lengthier ones in this book.

The phases into which we divide consultancy in this book are a somewhat artificial contrivance that enables us to discuss separately things that in real consultancy practice are often not separable. In this chapter and the next we make a distinction between engaging and empowering, as though they follow each other, which they often do not in a clear-cut fashion. Reassuringly, perhaps, when we encountered the book by Gunn and Durkin (2010, p 167), we found that our division of the phases corresponds closely with their four stages of social entrepreneurship: analysis, instigation, sustaining and reflecting. Although there is some overlap between the focus of social entrepreneurs and that of consultants in public services, there are good reasons why we have located the activity of gathering information rather later in the process – after engagement takes place – than they do. As already noted, most of the phases of consultancy we deal with in Chapters Two to Six overlap and on occasions coincide, or are even repeatedly revisited. However, despite the overlapping nature of engagement and empowerment, they are distinctively different.

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This chapter examines how consultancy can empower people. We begin by discussing how people may be empowered. Following this, we examine how the consultants gather and use information pertaining to the consultancy. Lastly, we dip into a consultant’s notebook to explore how consultants work in different domains of public services organisations.

We saw in the definition of empowerment in Chapter Four that it refers both to the capacity of people to take control of their lives and to the process by which they do this and, potentially, empower others to do the same. When we consider as consultants the notion of empowerment in action, the image that comes to mind is of waves or rays that are capable of permeating throughout the entire arena of public services, that is, it affects different domains of people’s work and lives, in that they may be involved in self-empowerment, empowering other individuals, groups, organisations, communities and political systems. These different domains of empowerment exemplify five aspects of the concept (Adams, 2008a, p 75), its:

• connectedness, in that they all interact with each other;

• holism, in that they engage the whole person between them;

• equality, in that they are not in a hierarchy;

• authenticity, in that they are not merely technical, but, for the people involved, embodied states of being and doing;

• dynamism. Empowerment in practice (Adams, 2008a, p 74) is the term used to refer to ‘the continuous interaction between critical reflection and empowering practice, that is, the continuous in and out cycle of reflecting–acting–evaluation and the interplay between thinking and doing’ – a critical and self-critical process.

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This chapter examines the phases of the consultancy associated with endings or follow-on work. The disengagement phase should also make space for reviewing and evaluating what has been achieved and what has been left undone, and should enable the consultants to review their own performance self-critically, quite separately from their review of the consultancy. This is in recognition that the consultancy has engaged people who receive public services as citizen-consultants. They have been drawn into the consultancy intellectually and emotionally and have acted as critics as it has proceeded. Now, as the consultants disengage from the consultancy, the citizen-consultants maintain their critical gaze on the process.

Disengagement is the term used to refer to the process of withdrawal by the consultant. Ideally, this should be a gradual and smooth process, which seems to all parties inevitable since the consultant has worked her- or himself out of a job. The bottom line is that when individuals, groups and organisations reach the point that they can continue to carry out, or work on, what the consultant has been doing, this is when the consultancy, de facto, ends, whether or not any of the parties recognise this at the time! This is the point where any contingency fees are paid, which are separate from the regular fees normally paid in stages throughout a consultancy extending beyond a few weeks. Contingency fees are fees paid only when specified conditions have been met by contractors, including the consultant. In some consultancies, the consultant may be paid a retainer by the client at the conclusion of the contract.

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The approach we have adopted over the past two decades is somewhat opportunistic, in that we have relied on the consultancy business that has come our way at the university and that which we have generated. However, during this period we have gradually been able to accumulate experience and arrive at the categories of the consultancy process that we set out and followed in Chapters Two to Six. We have reached the point where we feel convinced that an empowerment approach or model to consultancy is not only possible, but is practicable and desirable from the citizen’s point of view, given the present trajectory of government policy and the nature of current practice in organisations delivering public services.

The journey through our practice has enabled us to accumulate observations and reflections on our work in progress. We expand on these in this third part of the book, making connections between the very different settings of consultancy practice in the public services. To continue the cartographical analogy a little further, if this is a map, it is not only unfinished but is also changing as we journey, in the sense that public policy is in a state of flux. This is not a temporary situation, but is part and parcel of the context of public services.

The division of material between this chapter and the next is that we attempt to set consultancy in the public services in its broader context in this chapter, and explore some perspectives on it in the following chapter.

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This chapter deals with the ideas and concepts associated with consultancy, exploring in more detail a variety of ideas that occurred to us while carrying out different consultancies about perspectives on, and approaches to, consultancy. Consultancy is, or should be, a continually reinvented concept, for each client. It is important that what the consultant does is tailored to meet the needs of each unique consultancy setting. In this sense, consultancy is a multifaceted concept that to an extent, chameleon-like, takes on the appearance of its surroundings. At the same time, consultants bring their distinctive contributions to the setting, which, after all, is the justification for paying for them in the first place. These statements encapsulate the tension between two different perspectives on consultancy – on the one hand, as ‘simply’ an additional contribution to the present functioning of the organisation and, on the other hand, as a critic, gadfly or catalyst for significant organisational change.

There are probably as many perspectives on consultancy as there are consultants. While it is apparent that no single perspective on consultancy can do justice to the complexity and variety of the field of public services, what we can do is develop ideas about the values and principles that are common to a great many different approaches. We begin, tentatively perhaps, to develop some coherent ideas about the basis for practice, amplifying our reflections on the aspects of practice explored in Part 2.

In the first section of this chapter we view public services consultancy from different theoretical perspectives, from which we may also view the host or client organisation – the appearance of consultancy changes according to one’s view, including one’s conceptual vantage point.

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This book has explored prospects for new approaches to empowering people in organising and delivering public services. The empowerment approach to consultancy is based on a critical view of contemporary organisations and management, and relies on a new prospect for the shape of public services and the way they are led and delivered in the 21st century. This chapter explores prospects for the further development of this approach.

The focus of previous chapters has been on achieving significant change, and we use the term ‘transformation’ to refer to this.

The positive goal for the future of public services is to create modes of delivering them that empower the staff working in them as well as the citizens receiving them. Using the terminology of the economist, it is concerned with working on the challenging and complex goal of achieving the opposite of the four features of the ‘uneconomy’, which is unfair, unequal, unsustainable and making people unhappy.

The case for innovative consultancy concerned with bringing about change is rooted in the notion of transformative activity, which is not only desirable, but necessarily rests on three linked ideas.

1. Change is endemic in society as a whole and in public services as an aspect of society. It is a permanent feature of society in which many major functions of government and the economy are becoming globalised. However, globalisation is not a universal and inevitable feature of all aspects of life. The typical young person with higher qualifications cannot expect to enter a profession in their early twenties and remain in a secure job until retirement. It is more likely that after a decade the half life of their degree will have expired and a fresh round of learning will be necessary (Lynch, 2001, p 60). Lynch describes this notion of ‘accelerated lifestyles and experiences’ as increasingly typical of the professions, since ‘the body of professional knowledge will be modified and changed as society changes, and as fresh and innovative demands are made of the profession’ (Lynch, 2001, p 61).

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This book has grown from our consultancy in public services carried out over the past 25 years. It challenges the traditional view that consultants exist to be brought in as experts. Instead, it develops a new way of thinking about and doing consultancy with public services, which resonates with the current direction of policy and practice in that it empowers people already in the workforce and those patients, service users, carers and members of the public who work with them and want to engage in delivering high quality services.

While we admit unashamedly that this book is the unplanned outcome of our experiences, we would like to share with the reader our growing conviction that we have developed a systematic approach, which we call an empowerment approach to consultancy. In reaching this point, we have reflected on our practice and have delved into the literature on consultancy to help us to understand what has been happening as we have journeyed. We recognise, of course, that our approach is only one that has evolved from our practice and which suits us. It is only one of many possible approaches – it is an empowerment approach and not the empowerment approach.

We believe that this has not only produced this very practical handbook, well illustrated from our practice, but has stimulated us to reconsider our ideas and perspectives on public services in general and on organisations such as hospitals and social services in particular, as part of our search for understanding of our practice, working from practical experience through reflection to a consistent pattern of theories and ideas.

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