Consultant as wizard: [expletive deleted]

It’s very hard to type and pace around fuming at the same time.

I just left a session at a national conference that shall remain unnamed. I left because I am too mad to be civil anymore.   I am beyond tired of consultants feeding community professionals bullshit in the guise of wisdom. No wonder they don’t trust us.

The session I left is on using economic impact studies to determine whether financial incentives are appropriate in economic development.   I just taught a class on unravelling economic impact studies with Pete Mallow, so that part was somewhat of interest, and I’m teaching a training on use of incentives next month, so that part was the reason I went.

I had to leave halfway through before my budding anger and bad behavior got me in trouble.

The speaker, who I don’t know, carries that slick all-knowing persona that’s de rige ur ( along with a head of gray hair).  His message?  “Look how nice and straightforward and objective all of your incentives negotiations will be if you base them on the crystal clarity that an economic impact study (especially if done by us or using our software) gives you.

“”You want to know what an economic impact study includes?  Well, first you take your direct costs, you plug them into the magic calculator, hocus pocus and…

“Voila! Here’s your number.  Now you know what your incentives should be.  Doesn’t that make you feel good?

“Want to project it out 10 years into the future?  No problem.  How easy we’ve made it for you!

“How did we get that number, you ask?  Here’s the name of our magic multiplier source…that’s all you need to know, you know.  Don’t worry about it.  Trust us… We’re the experts.”



There is no way that an economic analysis is worth the memory it takes up in your inbox unless you understand exactly how that magic number was calculated and why the multipliers used were used.  If the multipliers are straight out of some standard source, and your community is not identical in time and space to the geography used in that source, the analysis will not fit.   Worse, there is no way in hell that a 10-year projection that lands on one number can be right.  It’s statistically impossible.  Any honest person who passed college statistics can tell you that.

Common sense when you think about it.  And yet, people keep buying it.  A roomful of people sat and listened and took notes and bought it.



Is it any wonder why consultants who work with local governments have such a bad reputation?  In a complex, unpredictable, variable world, how can we offer simple, easy, prepackaged solutions… and sleep at night?  How can we stay behind the curtain of the wizard facade in Oz without constant fear of being uncovered?

Dorothy, Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion pull back the curtain and discover the Wizard.

How much of the physical, fiscal, economic mess that our communities face can be laid at the feet of know-it-all consultants who offered easy, unrealistic answers… and never addressed the alternative outcomes, the unintended consequences?  How many times can we leave a mess in our wake, relying on the fact that we can find another sucker down the road who won’t know about how badly we got this one wrong?

What’s it going to take before communities start to call us on it?  What’s it going to take before we come to terms with our own lack of omniscience?  When are we finally going to shift from arrogant know-it-all to what we should really be: wise advisors and facilitators.  Listeners.  Resources.  Sources of perspective.  Guides.  Teachers.

Until then, what good do we do?

I have been trying to do the right thing for a long time, and I’ve described before how sometimes I’ve been guilty of telling a community what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear.  I try not to do that anymore.

But it takes two to polka.  Community professionals have a role to play here, too. And that role is…. To not accept the bullshit.  To not assume that a grey haired dude in a suit automatically knows how to lead you to the promised land.

Ask questions.  Ask a lot of questions. Ask the stupid questions.  Ask more questions if you don’t fully understand the answer.

Under no circumstances accept anything that even hints at “we’re the experts, trust us.”  We should have learned by now that that dog don’t hunt.

If your consultant gives you a magic number out of a black box, run away.  If your consultant makes it sound too easy, push for the details, probe for the grey areas. And if your consultant even begins to condescend to you, fire their ass.  Period.  They are not doing you any good.

So help me out here, folks: if I ever say I have the magic answer, if I ever say,  just trust me….  Apply a blunt object to my head, ok?

Thanks…. Knew I could count on you.

12 thoughts on “Consultant as wizard: [expletive deleted]”

  1. Okay Della quit sugar coating it. You are right on the money. There are good consultants and advisers and then there are so called used car salesmen. I agree ask lots of questions and then more questions before you hire one. And then question again. I have also seen to many of these at the same conference. Thank you for laying it wide open.

  2. It’s sad how rational people used to fuzzy reality will seize on the panacea of an easy firm answer they can “take to the bank” from a formula, assumptions, and software they’ve accepted on naive faith or laziness. You call it consulting, accurately, but it’s also the core assumption underlying most software development and IT systems, advertising agency and PR professionals’ pitches, many civil engineers I’ve known, folks selling outsourced services of all kinds, purchasing agents/buyers, politcians, and many academics. “Just tell what to do so I can get on with my day!!!” covers a multitude of sins, makes you wonder how these folks got through school or maybe that’s what embittered them about doing their own research and thinking through a problem. I’ve worked a lot with economic impact and incentives and as you point out, it depends on so many local factors as well as subtle factors about the company that end up mattering far more than the easy numbers do. And while some unintended consequences are visible (adjacent real estate speculation, perhaps skimming the cream of the best and most underpaid local workers, newcomers needing housing that’s unavailable, current big fish in the local pond losing status/clout when a bigger fish enters, throwing off someone else’s plans for the land or inputs, changing city infrastructure extension and capacity plans, ec.) the others (a recruited company that’s unstable enough to flame out quickly or hot enough to be bought and dismantled by the acquirer, a cobbled together management team that makes the permitting and build-out a multi-year nightmare, a desired workforce at a wage that turns out not to exist in adequate numbers in the region, an overlooked gap in the regional transportation system that can’t be fixed and costs a lot, inadequate local inputs, local providers who screw the newcomers-especially on repairs, relocated spouses that can’t find suitable work and keep forcing many employees to leave within a year or two (as high as 50% of the movers), new housing promised that never materializes…) Glib answers are usually a sign they have no clue on implementation, a worried pause and “well it depends” is oddly more often the sign of someone with some painfully acquired wisdom on the matter, exactly opposite of our assumptions about who is the expert consultant. Thanks Delia!

    1. “Just tell what to do so I can get on with my day!!!” covers a multitude of sins, makes you wonder how these folks got through school or maybe that’s what embittered them about doing their own research and thinking through a problem.

      a worried pause and “well it depends” is oddly more often the sign of someone with some painfully acquired wisdom on the matter, exactly opposite of our assumptions about who is the expert consultant.

      Perfect. And yet how many of us personally, service-sellers and service-receivers alike, find “well, it depends” more than a little unsatisfactory? Do we need to re-educate ourselves?

    1. 🙂

      My own lack of grey hair is only due to getting one of the right sets of genes… there has to be a benefit to being a redhead somewhere!

  3. Remember a time when the speakers at a conference – consultants included – would share their honest insight and experience? Why is it now that so many of the conferences, and particularly the national ones, have programs filled with consultants who speak only to hawk their latest product? Oh sure, we sat through sessions where consultants bragged about their latest project, but that was still a step up from the thinly-disguised selling we see today.

    Widespread availability of data, computing technologies, and the Internet as a delivery vehicle have created a perfect storm for the kind of “service” you describe. Let’s remember that a storm leave destruction in its wake. Whether it is this impact calculator or any of dozens of other calculators/programs out there, or the so-called “market data” I constantly rant about, it is filled with flaws. In the past a good consultant could understand the data, its limitations, the alternative means of analyzing it, and how to construct a model that would produce the best results for the client. Now people think they have some wonderful new product that lets them spend just a few hundred dollars on some output to get the same results. The trouble is, the results are not the same. They are often far from accurate. I often mention one project where the data from ESRI underestimated sales by 30 times the actual sales being recorded. As a consultant I could glance at the canned market report and instantly recognize it as garbage, but would the typical client? Probably not.

    So to echo what you said, take these “miracle” programs and services with a grain of salt. The data they are based on, the assumptions they use, and the methodology they employ all have errors and limitations that get compounded in the results. Chances are, you are not saving yourself any money or getting any more accurate information on which to base a decision.

    1. Thanks, Michael! I think you and I were at the same conference…
      Yes, a big piece of it is the sophisticated-looking-ness (let’s pretend that’s a word…) of the easily-chunked-out-data (ditto) and the race to the bottom pricewise. And part of it is the complete lack of sensitivity analysis — “Here’s your number, everything will work out exactly as we planned.”

      So does it make sense for consultants who are trying _not_ to be used car salespeople (to use Jim’s term below) to try to educate “typical” clients about what lies beneath the surface? How aggressive should we be in doing that? On the one hand I am furious enough at consultant who have… fouled the pool for the rest of us, for lack of a more delicate way to put it… that I am ready to start yelling loudly, but on the other hand, no one likes sour grapes.

  4. The more I see everyone’s comments and the original blog post, I am thinking that the profession of Economic Development is beginning to revolve around two universal axioms (neither of which are good in my opinion). First, economic development seems to be more about the process than the product. From my perspective as a low-key half-time ED professional, ED is nearly 85-90% about marketing and relationship building. I understand how it can play a role, but it’s role seems too pronounced. What exactly are we marketing and how are these relationships going to help? Do we understand what differentiates us from our competitors in the ED realm? The second axiom is that ED is more about outputs than outcomes. We get all excited when the new report comes out, or the new branding initiative hits or when the new restaurant breaks ground. And yes, that is important, but when do we go back and measure the effectiveness of those efforts? Are those jobs created by that restaurant moving the needle? Does that new watering hole instantly become a community asset? Did that new glossy handout convince anyone?

    1. Thanks. To be fair, this post wasn’t specifically aimed at _economic development_ consultants– it was aimed at an approach to consulting that relies on the “trust me, I’m the expert” cheese. I have seen the same out of architects, land use planners, engineers of all stripes, you name it. It becomes same tune, different words– but similar risks and usual results.

      At the same time, however, William P raises what I read as a pretty tough assessment of economic development here. What do you think?

  5. Professor Harold Hill here. I’m here to talk about a boys band ….

    … We need your credentials!

    New century, new territory, same story.

  6. That’s right…point at the gray haired guys in the suit…not us bald guys in the blazers…. 😉

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