For ten plus years, I was the state of Indiana’s TANF Program manager. As a state administrator, I’d inevitably spend time listening to advice from a private sector consultant who had been an administrator in another state. The conversation would be cordial until the consultant would wax poetic about how his old state did something, implying that solution is what Indiana needs. My usual response was to become defensive, tune out the consultant and think to myself, “Good for your state, but the last I checked this was Indiana and we do things differently here.”
If you’re a former state employee, new to the consultant world, here’s advice on what to do so that you won’t tick off your client.
Remember what it was like on the other side of the desk
When you were a state employee, how did you feel when an outside consultant paid you a visit? Were you on guard? Offended? (“Who are you to tell them how to do their job?”) Keep that in mind as you talk with the state program administrators. Don’t hide from your experience as a former state employee, it shows you empathize and understand what your client is experiencing, but, remind yourself that even though what your state did may have been fabulous, does that solution mesh with your client’s needs?
Do your homework
The more you know about the state agency and its programs, the better you can tailor your proposed solutions. A state’s administrative structure, political nuances, work culture, technical infrastructure, and myriad other issues set parameters limiting what can be done. Visit the agency’s website to see what it says about itself. Read the agency’s policy manuals. Look for current news articles about your client’s programs. You don’t need to be an expert in what the agency does, how it does it and why, but a working knowledge of those things will help you see how your experience fits with the agency’s needs. Again, think back to your time as a state employee: if a consultant suggested a fix that clearly doesn’t fit your circumstances, how did you feel?
Avoid the following phrase: “In State X, we did this”
Sparingly use the phrase, “In <State>, we did this.” The rationale is simple: as a consultant you’re here to help the state agency fix a problem with a solution that meets the state’s needs and is, hopefully, better, faster, and cheaper than what they’re doing today. As stated above, client states’ situations vary so widely that what worked in your state may not be feasible in another state, but what Kansas, New Mexico or another state did may be a more viable approach for the client’s specific needs. Referencing how your state did something is fine as an example of a solution but be prepared with examples of what other states have done as well. Providing multiple options is best because one size does not fit all.
In conclusion, remember what it was like when you were on the state agency side of the table. Treat your client as you wish to have been treated when you were a state employee. Do your homework. Show your knowledge of possible solutions based upon your state experience, but remember every state sees itself as special and that what worked in your state may not work for your client’s state.