The Dream Consultant

Following on from our reflections about The Dream Client, it seemed only fair to consider what the dream consultant looks like. When we first set up 99 Consulting in 2006 we thought hard about what we liked and didn’t like in consultants we had hired in previous jobs. We were pretty clear that we didn’t want to be a consulting operation that sent senior people to tout for the work then task juniors to do it, that failed to listen to what our clients wanted or that handed in shoddy half-formed stuff as if it was the finished product. We also didn’t want to be all glitz and no substance.

We know we’re not perfect, but here are some things we aspire to, and that we suggest our clients look for whether they’re hiring us or someone else:

  • Eyes on the prize! The consultant should share the client’s focus on a valuable and useful end result – avoid those jaded types that seem more interested in the finish line and sending that final invoice.
  • Transparent: The consultant’s people doing the hands on work should be those who were named in the proposal – the client should be confident that the right skills and experience are deployed appropriately.
  • On-side: The client should be confident that the consultant is working for their benefit. A good one should pretty quickly be able to adapt so that the work is a good fit with your language, your culture, your context, while retaining independence and able to offer objective findings.
  • Frank, fearless, fair and well-founded: While a good consultant may not always have good news to report, they should be able to back up any claims with evidence and a rationale. No need to ‘trust the expert’. The good news must be backed with evidence too – or you may find yourself unable to use the results more widely.
  • Communicative: The client needs to be able to contact the consultant easily, know what stage of the work they are up to, and feel respected by the consultant’s communication with them. The client should feel it is easy to prompt more, or less, communication if necessary.
  • On time: Consultants should meet their deadlines, so long as the client hasn’t changed scope of work or delayed timelines with slow approvals etc.
  • Top notch: The client should receive high quality work. We’ve seen clients accept poor work (not from us of course), mainly because the person signing off didn’t have the relevant expertise, so they didn’t know what was flawed in work they were presented with. Sometimes it’s because they’ve given up – they don’t think the consultant can do any better.
  • Ready to say no to work that’s outside their experience – consultants should know their limitations and be prepared to refer clients to someone else for work that’s beyond their expertise.
  • Appropriately challenging – the consultant shouldn’t just put your ideas and words into a report with their name on it – they should make your ideas better or prove that they are true, or alternatively show you why they may not work. Responsive: if you don’t want the consultant’s standard off-the-shelf way of doing something then you shouldn’t accept it. We’ve seen consultants impose their pet methodology, tool or process on clients even when it’s not actually relevant.Dream consultant pic (2)

Even dream clients and consultants sometimes drop the ball. Unintended communication failings, lack of time to progress the consultant’s project, organisational change that swamps the work – all these things and more can derail even the best planned work. The best ways to pick up the pieces are ….the topic of a future blog!




Social Mix and the City

I’ve been working on and off for the past few months on a large literature search on Australian public housing estate renewal projects. Renewal projects are big news in Australian public housing, as they are in other parts of the developed world. They’re driven by two issues: an ageing stock of public housing built in the decades following the second world war and which now needs replacement; and a perception of public housing estates as dysfunctional locations characterised by poverty and crime.

The first problem requires major capital works to upgrade or replace housing, or else its sale and replacement with newer housing. The standard answer to the second problem is to create “social mix” by selling public housing dwellings to owner-occupiers, bringing comparatively higher income working people into communities which were previously dominated by people on pensions and benefits. This is seen to benefit the area as a whole by reducing stigma, attracting better mainstream services (e.g. shops and doctors) because there is more income in the community overall, and reducing crime and anti-social behaviour. These benefits are intended to “rub off” on the most disadvantaged residents through better services, more access to employment and proximity to middle class role models.

The idea of social mix seems to make sense and it is widely accepted by governments and community groups here and around the world. I have argued for it myself in the past. The problem, as I’ve been finding out in my literature search, is that there’s virtually no evidence to support it.

The best introduction to this issue I’ve found is a book by Kathy Arthurson called Social Mix and the City, published by CSIRO Publishing in 2012.  Arthurson is an experienced Adelaide researcher and academic who has been working in the field of estate renewal for over a decade, and this book reveals her learnings over that time.

The origin of Social Mix and the Citythe idea of social mix, she says, is with some of the key social reformers of the 19th century like Joseph Rowntree, George Cadbury, Octavia Hill and Ebenezer Howard.  Confronted by the extreme urban poverty and discontent that followed the industrial revolution, they proposed the creation of communities that drew heavily on the notion of the pre-industrial village community where people of all classes lived close to each other and rubbed shoulders regularly. They believed that if the poor lived close to middle and upper class families they would learn better habits of thrift, hygiene and hard work and hence improve themselves over time.  These ideas grew very much out of the idea of poverty as an individual pathology and led to experiments in urban design such as Cadbury’s Bourneville Village and various new towns based, at least partly, on Howard’s Garden City design.

The idea experienced a resurgence in the post-war years where it was built into some of the earlier public housing developments, although the idea was soon buried in the pragmatic process of developing large scale public housing estates and the increased targeting of public housing to the most disadvantaged that began in the 1970s.  Its current resurgence began in the 1990s as housing authorities started to deal with the legacy of the 1960s and 1970s public housing boom.

What is distinctive about its most recent reincarnation is its almost exclusive focus on public housing estates and reducing concentrations of poverty.  In current policy debate there is little focus on reducing concentrations of wealth or building public housing in middle class communities.  This rather begs the question of where disadvantaged public tenants will live when they have been “de-concentrated” from public housing estates.

Arthurson’s review of the evidence uncovers little to support this policy approach.  There is no evidence to show that public tenants get better access to employment and training, that services improve, or that the health and wellbeing of public housing tenants improves.  The stigma of neighbourhoods may be reduced as a result of the redevelopment but it is not clear if this is because of social mix or because of the physical improvements that go with renewal projects and the intensive marketing that accompanies large-scale sales programs.  In any case, there is some evidence that rather than being removed, stigma is simply transferred to the public housing dwellings within the community.

As for role modelling, Arthurson’s in-depth interviews with residents in redeveloped areas in South Australia found that for the most part, home owners and public tenants don’t form close friendships, although they only occasionally experience active conflict.  This is partly because home owners tend to spend a lot less time in the suburb than public tenants.  They go out each day to work, and they often use recreational and social facilities outside the suburb and send their children to more distant schools.  By contrast, public housing tenants are often less mobile, are less likely to be in the workforce and more likely to depend on public transport.  This can accentuate social divides along class or income lines.  “Social mix” doesn’t necessarily lead to “social mixing”.

Why, when the evidence is so slim, are these policies pursued with such vigour?  Well, I guess it might be partly because the power of received ideas is very strong, and politicians and public servants don’t have a lot of time to read academic research.  However, I also suspect there is another reason.  Public housing authorities around Australia are badly strapped for cash.  They operate on a financial model set up when their job was to house working families, and they are expected to pay for their operations out of their rents.  Now that 90% of their tenants are on benefits and paying highly subsidised rents, they are no longer able to make ends meet.  The only way they can pay for the badly needed replacement of old housing is by selling some of the new housing they build. Whether social mix has benefits for tenants or not, we’re stuck with it for purely financial reasons.

The good news is that there is no evidence that social mix is actually bad for public housing tenants.  However, it does beg the question – where will the new housing come from for the hundreds of thousands of people still on public housing waiting lists?