Meet our new senior advisor

Let me reveal a secret. When I worked as a freelance consultant, about five years ago, I was regularly included on multiple bids for international development programmes, mostly as a part-time monitoring and results measurement expert. If all had been successful, I would have been be required to work considerably more than the number of working hours in a day.

Here’s another secret. The same is true of every consultant. Mostly, it works out – not all bids are successful, so consultants end up having enough to do (but not too much). Sometimes, however, a consultant is unlucky, wins everything they bid for, and is unable to meet all their commitments. This causes bitter complaints from all sides. Consulting companies get angry that they include freelance consultants on bids, and then the consultants reject the offer when the project is won. Donors get frustrated that they award the bid to a certain company working with the foremost international expert in the area. And then, when the contract is won, the international expert disappears and gets replaced by an intern.

This suggests that the bidding system is broken. A few years ago, I was asked to sign up for a full-time role as results measurement advisor on a programme in Indonesia. The job sounded amazing. The only catch – the programme wouldn’t start for a year, and I had (at best) a 30% chance of being in the winning team. What do donors expect? That I spend a year enthusiastically unemployed, waiting for a message to tell me that I should start on Monday? That I start another job, and abandon it as soon as a long-forgotten HR manager gives me a call? It’s no surprise that few people are willing to sign up on these bids – and even less of a surprise that they don’t honour their commitments.

There’s another ridiculous side-effect. Since multiple firms all try to recruit at the same time, good candidates get split across multiple teams. We all know that it’s hard to recruit good staff. But now there are many different teams, all trying to simultaneously recruit good staff for the same programme. Since only one team can win, and some firms require exclusivity agreements, that means that many of the best candidates, who are willing and interested in working on the programme, won’t get the opportunity.

Of course, there’s a better way. Don’t require bidding firms to include CVs and teams on proposals to run development programmes. It’s a waste of time, you can’t hold them to account for it, and it reduces the quality of the final proposal. Get the firms to compete on their institutional knowledge, expertise, and systems. Get them to compete on costs they can control, such as internal staff or overheads. Even better, get them to compete on the level of margins they charge. Then when the programme is awarded they can start to recruit properly, looking for the best people for the role, who are able to start straight away.