Since good strategic planning incorporates many different kinds of activities, state arts agencies must be prepared to bring a variety of skills, experience and areas of knowledge to the task. These include identifying procedural models, conducting research, facilitating meetings, resolving conflicts and preparing effective written documents. While these capabilities are often present among agency staff and leaders, securing them from outside consulting professionals can be advantageous, so most agencies draw on the work of outside professionals at some point in their planning. Three variables are important in determining whether—and how best—to work with consultants. These variables are expertise, staff time and budget.
Planning consultants can offer advice on the overall design of the planning process. This type of consultation may be especially helpful at the pre-planning stage (see pages 13-17), during which you outline the major purposes and management approach of your plan. The planning process best suited to determine a new mission and vision might be very different from one that is suited to address a specific set of already-known issues. A process that best builds a specific set of partnerships or responds to some crucial change in the environment might be different still. The critical question here is how confident the state arts agency leaders are that they can do a good job of shaping the planning process without additional perspective and assistance. An experienced consultant can familiarize you with different models and can help your team of accountable individuals determine which planning process may best help you achieve your desired outcomes.
Another set of planning skills relates to conducting group processes. State arts agencies can enhance the effectiveness of statewide meetings, sessions with council members, staff retreats, interviews, focus groups and other constituent input forums by employing professional facilitation techniques. These competencies include the ability to:
draw from individuals their best vision and ideas
help participants communicate well with each other
help groups set collective priorities
lead groups to an appropriate level of agreement on issues
accurately synthesize the proceedings (both during and after the meeting)
deal effectively and appropriately with conflicts, if they erupt
manage the meeting's timetable and agenda well
keep discussions focused, productive and constructive
Tips for Using Consultants
Identify the types of skills/expertise that will augment your own.
Work within budgetary constraints: choose the best advice you can afford.
Secure references and examples.
Be explicit about roles, responsibilities, deliverables and timelines.
Choose a staff "point person" for managing the relationship.
State arts agency staff and leaders routinely employ such skills through the course of their work with partners and constituents. But having a consultant or guest facilitator run meetings from an unbiased perspective can often help to bring fresh ideas and a new degree of honesty to the table, while freeing SAA staff and leaders to listen more attentively and participate more fully in the proceedings.
Gathering, analyzing and communicating research call for yet another set of skills. Modern research methods offer state arts agencies a wide array of information-gathering and analysis techniques to help them understand their environment and secure a diversity of public perspectives. Experienced consultants can identify the most reliable and expedient techniques to secure the type of knowledge you need. It is important that the research advice you receive be of high quality. Ineffective framing and wording of questions, for instance, on surveys and in polls, focus groups and interviews can produce useless or—worse—misleading findings. And without expertise in public and press relations and the print, visual and verbal communication of data, even accurate and revealing findings may have little or no impact.
The state arts agency should carefully sort out the planning tasks in order to determine if, when and how its internal expertise needs to be supplemented. Most or all of the expertise required to design, oversee and carry out a good strategic planning process may be available within an agency. But the question remains whether assuming these planning tasks internally is the best use of the agency's current human resources. Depending on the scope of planning intended, a strategic process can demand from 10 to 40 percent of agency staff time in a year. In "peak years" this percentage could stretch much higher for key staff people (such as the planning officer, executive director or deputy director). Even if staff and council members do have the expertise and desire to execute the entire plan, will pursuing that work sacrifice programs, services or other functions that advance the agency or fulfill its public expectation? If so, securing consultants or contract workers might be advisable for some tasks.
In addition to the external expertise required and desired, the budget available for the function of planning may also affect the use and selection of consultants. The costs of contract help can vary widely, depending on the scope of work you desire and other important variables, including:
Type of term preferred: Does the consultant charge by the hour, day or week?
Typical client base: Does the consultant routinely work with large corporations? Nonprofits? Large government agencies? Arts groups?
Background: Does the consultant offer a unique skill or subject-specific knowledge that may command a premium cost?
Location: Will the consultant need to travel, or will most work be done via phone or e-mail?
Affiliation: Is the consultant an independent business? A nonprofit service? An extension of an academic program? A supplemental income stream for an arts management practitioner?
Presence of existing models: Will you be charged to develop new approaches, or can previously used models be adapted for you?
States may wish to identify a variety of different consultants, and find out what fee structures they offer. Look for variance in base rates, travel costs, inclusion of direct costs (such as phone, supplies, etc.) and the use of subcontractors. Also ask about what work similar to yours a consultant may have done for other clients. Not only is this an experience factor, it can be a budget factor, since the costs needed to invent a new system (such as a survey, Web site script, database or process model) can be significantly higher than the costs of adapting existing materials to your circumstances. The degree to which a potential consultant is able to propose a budget that satisfies you depends largely on his or her understanding of your process, needs and priorities. Be as specific as possible in crafting requests for proposals (RFPs) and calls for bids, in order to get reality-based rate quotes and secure proposals that are comparable.
Picking a Consultant
Try to secure the best caliber of help that you can realistically afford. Look for a proven track record of professionalism—favorable references and a reputation for follow-through and timely completion. References provided by a consultant are most useful for identifying strengths. References from state arts agency colleagues may be more useful for identifying a consultant's knowledge of state arts agencies, experience with arts planning or potential blind spots. An agency should request examples of work directly from a prospective consultant. As in any bid system, the low estimate submitted in response to an RFP may not necessarily be the preferable one.
It is advisable to incorporate personal interaction into the selection process. A match in communication style that leads to open mutual inquiry and early acknowledgment of unexpected situations will be felt by participants in the process and ultimately be reflected in the quality of the results. Seek consultants who listen well, customize their approach to the specific situation and demonstrate flexibility. Respected consultants collaborate with clients to develop clear expectations, and make—and honor—commitments to activities, deliverables, timetable and budget.
Managing the Work
"Clarity, clarity, clarity" is the rule for a good working relationship between an agency and a consultant. A formal consultant agreement should articulate the contract fees, activities, deliverables, payment schedule and timetable as precisely as possible. Where the ability of the consultant to accomplish stipulated tasks depends on work by the agency, it is a good idea for the formal agreement to describe the state arts agency's commitment of activities, products and timetable.
Monitoring systems are important points requiring early agreement. Decide what type and frequency of progress reports will keep the project on track, and be sure to intervene early if you don't see evidence of progress according to your agreed-upon schedule. Points at which the quality of work will be reviewed should be indicated in advance, as should areas of potential flexibility.
Finally, decide among the individuals managing the planning process exactly who will be the primary person to whom the consultant reports. This person's authority and reporting responsibilities should be crystal clear and devoid of ambiguity both within the agency and between the agency and the consultant.