Friday, September 26, 2008

Consultant Ethics 101

Professional, ethical consultants have two qualities:
  1. Area expertise--they are exceptionally accomplished in an area important to their clients where the client is not sufficiently capable.
  2. Objectivity--the consultant receives no benefit due to the client's decision and this is most commonly expressed as vendor-independence.
Area expertise is table stakes, you cannot even sit in on the game without it. No statement of ethics from any professional organization tolerates consulting outside one's area of expertise. Not the Institute of Management Consultants, not the Project Management Institute, nor any state licensing agency for whom it may actually be a criminal offense. And consultants are expected to be expert, not just above average or merely capable. These extraordinary, exceptional individuals acquire their skills from academic research and/or outstanding performance in their area of expertise. They are few and far between.

Objectivity is absolutely critical--a consultant must not be influenced by a client's preconceptions and more importantly must not even appear to be influenced by or biased towards a particular vendor. A quick google search for "consultant ethics vendor-independence" reveals that many professional consulting organizations agree. Without this independence, objectivity is compromised and no matter how knowledgeable the expert, the relationship becomes deal brokering, not an objective advice in the client's best interest.

Why do we, The Other Dunwoody, care? Well, it turns out we have our own self-professed consultant who lives in neighboring Sandy Springs. None other than Oliver Porter, the citymaker. But who is Oliver Porter and what is his field, what makes him an expert, acceptable as a consultant? We know this from the City of Sandy Springs:
Oliver W. Porter, Sandy Springs, GA - Porter is a former vice president of sales at AT&T. He is the founder of the Combined Health Appeal of America and served as the group's chief executive officer and past national chairman. He served as a board member with the Committee for Sandy Springs and as the past chairman of the National Kidney Foundation. Porter earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of South Carolina, a master's degree in business administration from Georgia State University, and completed graduate level executive programs at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Williams College, and the University of Illinois.
He is a businessman, more specifically, a salesman. Prior to his position with Sandy Springs he held no elected municipal position, had no municipal job with fiduciary responsibility or oversight of services. Not even dog catcher. He has no degree in urban planning nor in municipal management. No law degree, no studies of state or local law.

This is not the background of someone exceptionally knowledgeable in municipal operations and the legal, political and financial contexts in which a city exists.

So much for expertise, now how about objectivity?

Mr. Porter has been involved in the creation of new cities in our region, including his participation as an unpaid consultant and lobbyist for the City of Dunwoody. In all cases except Dunwoody where the decision is yet to be made, these cities have all chosen to outsource services to one company: CH2M Hill. In the case of Dunwoody an RFP was issued which surely Mr. Porter had a hand in and here's the real surprise: there was no other acceptable respondent but CH2M!

This could be no more than coincidence. Or perhaps there really is no other capable vendor but CH2M.

But this strange set of coincidences isn't all there is. It turns out that Mr. Porter is also an author who is "boutique publishing" a book espousing the benefits of city service outsourcing. So how does someone market a book without the services of traditional publishers? Glad you asked.

You could set up a web site, perhaps even a blog. You could work with academic institutions presenting seminars and workshops or even offering full semester, for-credit classes.

Or, you could co-market your book with a favorite vendor.
Mr. Porter is probably not actually on the CH2M payroll, and CH2M is perfectly entitled to buy any book they want and give them to anyone they want, but this smells more like quid pro quo than a string of coincidences.

This tag team has been working very closely with the Citizens for Dunwoody with CH2M donating money to CfD and our consultant sitting side by side Rob Augustine and Tom Taylor at the League of Women Voters' debate where they:
"defended the studies as prudent, the estimated $18 million budget as fiscally conservative, and the proposed service levels as a 25 to 30% improvement over what DeKalb currently provides."

We now know these statements have no connection with reality, are not supported by sound judgment and would never have been supported by a professional consultant who is truly an expert in these matters.

Doesn't Dunwoody deserve better than a profit motivated corporation with an increasingly spotty track record shilled by a connected consultant?

The Other Dunwoody does.