Thursday, 26 May 2011

Consultancy projects - Points to watch out for! (1)

As I mentioned in some previous posts, during the Autumn of last year I spent nearly three months out in the Caribbean working on an EU-funded technical assistance project. The project was based in the lovely islands of St Kitts and Nevis (SKN), ran from early October until just before Christmas, and drew on funds that formed part of the SKN Sugar Adaptation Fund. This fund was set up a few years ago, and it represents compensation from the EU for changes to the Sugar Protocol that made it less economic for SKN and other small states to produce sugar for export to the EU. In fact SKN took the decision to end sugar production back in 2005.

Working with a colleague who had long experience in the Caribbean, our task had nothing to do with sugar, however, and that's just as well as I have never pretended to be an agricultural economist. Rather, our remit was to study and advise on a macroeconomic framework for the islands, and deliver some training on that theme to officials from the relevant ministries. So for this project I had to pretend to be a macro-economist!

The picture shows the view from the house that we rented for the project, and where we did most of our work - yes, really.

While out in SKN, we wrote drafts of most of what we needed to do, but the final report was not completed and submitted to the St Kitts and Nevis government (through the consulting firm that hired us) until January this year. Then for a short time we ran into difficulties when the SKN authorities announced that our initial final report was unacceptable, and reported to the EU office in Barbados (which oversees the whole Eastern Caribbean sub-region) that they had been expecting something far more technical than what we had done.

This was rather strange as we (thought we) had made very clear to senior SKN officials how we proposed to approach the work, and why, and they seemed perfectly happy with what we planned to do. Our view was that in such a small country, with tiny technically qualified staffs in the key ministries, it would not be useful to set up a very technical macroeconomic framework - we thought no one would be able to use it effectively. So our first report was largely descriptive, underpinned by some economic analysis and supported by proposals about the organisational/ institutional changes that we thought would help in implementing the framework. But as noted above, we evidently misunderstood exactly what was wanted; this leads to:

Lesson 1. Make sure (really sure) you understand what the client wants.

Luckily, when these difficulties blew up we were already scheduled to spend a few days in Barbados (the picture shows a beach just north of Bridgetown), as a paper we had written in parallel to this project, on crisis and recovery in the Eastern Caribbean, had been accepted for an international conference in Bridgetown in late January (sponsored by the Central Bank of Barbados, the IMF and University of the West Indies). Our paper went down well, and we had time to meet the EU delegation in Bridgetown to discuss how to finalise our St Kitts and Nevis project. We agreed to write a more technical supplementary report, and this was delivered in February, finally accepted in March. So we got there in the end.

Part of the problem, I think - with the advantage of hindsight - is that we didn't manage to establish working relationships with key officials that were as trusting and positive as we would have liked. I don't fully understand what went wrong, though one thing that would have helped at the start would have been meetings with senior politicians - the Prime Minister and leading ministers relevant for our work. We failed to meet anyone at that level, and indeed were kept at arms length to a large extent by the middle level officials who were overseeing our work and (supposedly) helping us. This leads to the second lesson for consultancy projects:

Lesson 2. Establish positive and trusting working relationships at the most senior levels.

That's it for today; in my next post I shall offer some more lessons on the same theme.

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