Contract Planning

Dear Management Doctor:

Good morning. My County Administrator and I have been discussing hiring a planning consultant in essence to serve as an extension of staff to focus on comprehensive plan updates, special projects, etc., so I can focus on management and my staff can give more direct attention to customers. If I recall correctly from your class, this is something that you have recommended (kind of drawing on the concept of the flexible or organic organizational structure from the private sector; I decided to pursue a MBA after your class). As a result, I am looking for RFPs to procure such services. Do you have any examples or recommendations?

Thank you in advance for your assistance.

Steven Lease, AICP
Butts County, GA

Dear Steven,

I am pleased to hear what I have been preaching in my management classes has taken root — both in relation to your thinking about a more flexible organization as well as pursuing an MBA.

From time to time I receive RFP’s for contract planning but unfortunately don’t keep them. I am hoping that some of our readers can share some examples and ideas. I would suggest:

  1. Check with APA and the Private Practice division as they have publications on hiring consultants.
  2. For specific projects like a comprehensive plan update, I would use a standard RFQ or RFP process with a fixed fee contract.
  3. For extensions of staff I suggest you select one or more consultants to be on call using a time and materials approach. You have several approaches here:
    • You can hire a larger multiple discipline firm that can give you access to a variety of specialists. However, this will be the most costly route with likely billing rates of $75 to $150/hour.
    • If you can identify continuing work for a period of time, say a minimum of six months, you might find a planner that is in between a permanent job and will work at a reasonable rate of $40 to $60/hr. However, you may or may not get the specialization you need.
    • You might find a highly qualified retired planner who wants to work part time. The rate for this work could vary depending on the person but $80/hour may be reasonable.
Let me know how it goes.

The Management Doctor

P.S. Keep in mind that there are both good and bad consultants but you are in charge. If they don’t give you what you want, stop the contract and find a better consultant. For my firm I go for long-term relations with a variety of specialists. For my redevelopment specialist, I am on my third firm and think I now have found a more long-term relationship. For most of my other consultants, I hit pay dirt the first time out.

Reader Responses

Your comment about lack of acknowledgment for RFPs and RFQs really hit a note! My first boss had a system that I've used and enhanced over the years that really generated quality proposals. His basic rule was "the more information you give the consultant, the better the choices for the project. The better you treat the consultant, the more benefits you receive." I know this is probably too long to fit in your Management Ideas e-mail, but maybe you could use your experience and make this better. It's been an eye-opener working on the private side of the counter.

It's a dream, but I'd sure like to see a Planning Agency that included this in an RFP or RFQ:

  1. We will write the RFP/RFQ to include a clear and detailed description of the scope of work for which it's issued--perhaps even as detailed as the "sample contract" usually enclosed.
  2. We will timely answer all questions and share responses with all interested submitters.
  3. We will share the maximum budget for the project so consultants can make an intelligent decision as to invest $10,000 or more in a proposal.
  4. We will send out a list of all firms requested RFPs or expressing interest early in the process, and a list of submitters within two business days of the close of RFP/RFQ proposal acceptance.
  5. We will schedule the submittal date so that it is not the Friday before a holiday or the Monday following the holiday.
  6. We will specify a schedule for action and keep to that schedule; we will notify submitters of any schedule changes.
  7. We will notify submitters of their status for interview or no interview as soon as the selections are made.
  8. We will notify finalists interviewed of the selection as soon as the selection is made, even if the contract is subject to negotiation and later approval by the Council.
  9. We will state the objectives for requests, such as a "detailed break out of hours by team member," so the submitter can provide the information we need without having to expose individual salaries or proprietary information to the agency.
  10. We will take the position that the selected consultant is a member of the Agency's staff, and treat them accordingly.
An agency planner might ask, "When is a pledge like this needed?" I think that one of the three key aspects not taught in schools of being a planner is how to prepare an RFP/RFQ and select a consultant (the other two are customer service and writing plain language reports). Recent examples:
  1. Our firm received a 40+ page request for proposal. More than 30 of the pages were a sample contract applicable to a construction project; another half dozen on the application process, including a page limit, font size limit (too large), and requirements for binding. The actual scope of work was a two-page outline with no discussion as to the importance, depth, or objectives for more than 60 items associated with a General Plan. The RFP required that the proposal pricing be broken down to show how many hours each team member would spend on the various tasks. The agency received eight proposals with pricing ranging from $50,000 to over $500,000. After weeks of not hearing anything, the agency finally said they couldn't compare the proposals because the scopes of work and approaches were too disparate.
  2. One agency prohibited any contact with the in-house project manager; all questions had to go to purchasing. Purchasing did not know any technical answers. An e-mail with an accumulation of answers was sent out two days before the submittal deadline.
  3. Open right now is a proposal from a city for a comprehensive Downtown Revitalization Plan. The proposal was extremely well-written. Each task was detailed to the point that assigning staff and cost was a very simple step. Submission specifications were clear and still allowed for creativity and flexibility. The public participation program was outlined to explain exactly what the city wished to implement. A phone call to the city revealed that the project had a maximum budget of $50,000, but could squeeze out another $15,000 if needed. The problem; the scope of work for the public participation plan alone would cost over $40,000, and creating a City GIS map from scratch, part of the scope, could run more than $100,000 on its own.
  4. One jurisdiction refused to share who competing bidders might be. This created a lot of frustration from consultants who could have teamed up to make a better proposal. Agencies may not realize that the number of proposers and identification of interested firms can be part of a firm's "go-no go" decision on submitting.
  5. December 23rd at 3:00 pm was the due date for a proposal. The submissions then sat for two weeks until everyone involved was back from holiday. It was another three weeks before the agency would even acknowledge that proposals were being reviewed. Getting the proposals in on a date that allows for immediate distribution and fast turnaround is critical. Consulting firms have other projects as well as the one being proposed. It makes scheduling consulting staff challenging when there is a big unknown on the agency's decision schedule. A competing firm recently had a tiff with an agency awarding a contract because the project manager the agency liked took on management of another major project during the nine weeks the agency used to select a consultant; the agency then wanted to pull the award from the firm.
  6. Nothing is more frustrating than "nothing's going on." There is an agency that requested proposals for a project in mid-December, 2007. The RFP said there was a critical deadline for completion of October 1, 2008 because of grant deadlines. It is now the end of March, and the agency has still not selected firms for interviews. The last call elicited a "we're still reviewing applications." It's more efficient for everyone if the agency makes a schedule and sticks with it. The schedule needs to include time for the agency's legal counsel to review contracts and for whatever time purchasing needs to meet its requirements.
  7. Consulting firms do not just shotgun proposals; it's too expensive. A well-written RFP/RFQ requires a lot of custom writing and calculating, so consultants pick and choose which projects warrant a submission. One decision point is whether the firm believes it has a strong chance of winning the project from the agency. If there is a high level of confidence, the consulting firm will skip submitting other proposal submissions in order to ensure there is staff time available to work on the agency's project. Most RFP/RFQs require a signature from a principal to guarantee the firm will perform on the contract. Too many times, agencies won't inform submitters of progress until after the Board or Council approves the contract. If the agency is going to interview more than one firm, it's highly unlikely a consultant not invited to interview will be considered for the project. Letting the consultant know she was not shortlisted helps those firms move on.
  8. The same issue goes with not telling finalists which firm was selected until after the Board or Council approves the contract. In one case, it was nine months from the submittal date to the Council-approved contract. When something drags out, firms have to move on and the agency may even be at a disadvantage. (Now this obviously occurred before the economy slowdown) An agency took so long to award the project and enter into negotiations; the selected firm had taken on other projects. It therefore didn't "need" the work, so it held fast to its scope and costs and wouldn't negotiate. The agency also found that the other short-listed firms had moved on to other projects and were no longer available. It had to re-bid the project, and only received two proposals compared to eight the first time. Both were from firms the agency had rejected on the first go-round.
  9. Sometimes there are requests in an RFP/RFQ that make no sense. Many are copied from engineering design contracts or use standard AIA contract language. This does not always apply in a planning project. Rather than specifying the number of pages or font size, explain the objective: "We want the project to be written in plain language. Your Proposal/Qualifications should demonstrate proficiency in this requirement with a well-written, concise submittal." Another favorite is the contract clause requiring a planning consultant to defend the agency from litigation over the adequacy of the planning document. While this may make sense for an engineering design contract or an architectural design contract, elected officials cannot change stamped and sealed plans. However, elected officials do, and sometimes against recommendations, change planning documents. My firm had to fight with an agency attorney to show that once elected officials changed a document submitted by the firm, it's no longer the firm's document. It took our firm's legal counsel and assistance from APA to finally convince the agency's attorney that a consultant cannot be liable to defend a policy document changed from its professional recommendations for political purposes.
  10. Essentially, the agency is hiring the consultant to fill in where there is inadequate staff to complete the project in-house. Consultants are not paid the dollars per hour listed on a rate sheet. That rate includes overhead, support personnel, and the cost and profit of running a business. We're paid comparably to public sector planners of equal skill levels. Hiring a consultant is not an admission of an agency's lack of competence; it's cheaper than hiring a new staff member on a temporary basis to do the same work. It would be nice to work with an agency that treats the consultant the same as it treats its employees (that is assuming it is a competent agency that treats employees as skilled professionals).

The Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission has a provision in its Policies Manual to develop a "list" of approved service providers. Once approved through the RFQ process, the service providers are called upon as needed. The RFQ is reissued every other year. The approved services providers must annually notify the Planning Commission if they wish to stay on the list. We recently did an RFQ for General Planning Consultants; Graphic Consultants; and Facilitators (see below).

Good luck.
Barbara L. Leiby, AICP
Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission, FL

The Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission requires professional facilitator services in relation to various planning activities. To respond to this RFQ, submit a letter of interest; a service provider information form, three client references and no more than four typewritten pages addressing the following: (1) Ability to assist the Planning Commission to bring focus to and resolve community issues quickly (e.g., workshops, focus groups); (2) Qualifications to provide mediation and facilitation services to Planning Commissioners and staff (e.g., training and experience in conflict avoidance; consensus building; shared problem solving) including the qualifications of the service provider and staff who will be performing facilitator services; (3) Capacity to respond to requests for assistance in a timely fashion; (4) Performance on similar projects (i.e., on schedule, within cost limit, originality of approach, handling special circumstances, sensitivity to local issues); (5) Potential conflicts of interest (e.g., other clients, investments, existing relationships with other local government boards, commissions, authorities, etc.); and (6) Hourly rates for facilitator services. Service providers with experience facilitating planning issues and who have facilitated in the Tampa Bay area, as well as women and minority-owned firms are encouraged to respond. The Planning Commission is an equal opportunity employer. Responses are due by 4:00 PM, Thursday, June 2, 2005 to: Robert B. Hunter, FAICP, Executive Director, Planning Commission, P.O. Box 1110, Tampa, Florida 33601-1110. A scope of services and service provider information form are available by calling 813/272-5940.

I'm surprised after all the years you've been in the business that you would recommend an RFP before having reviewed the results of an RFQ. The RFQ process allows the maximum number of consultants to respond to your request, not just those who think they might have an "edge," because an RFQ is a whole lot less expensive to respond to.

You can include the rate you might consider or other terms and conditions in the RFQ, so you won't hear from people who are unwilling to meet your terms. When you can select from the most qualified, you get the best people for your needs.

The Estimating Planning Services: An APA/AICP/ASCP Handbook by Mary Anne G. Bowie, AICP, and Roger D. Blevins, AICP, is a bit old (1997) for the information on labor rates to be much good, but the process information is extremely useful. I'm not sure if it's still available at the Planners Bookstore. If not, you can locate Mary Anne in the APA directory and she'll send you a copy for whatever the going rate is these days.

Polly Carolin, FAICP

The Management Doctor's Response


If communities used the RFQ program as it is intended, I might agree with you. However, in my experience many communities want almost as much information for an RFQ as they do for an RFP. If it is a complex project with a large budget, I will agree that from the consultant’s perspective the RFQ is preferable. However, for less complex projects and smaller budgets I still might prefer the RFP. Thanks for the feedback and keeping me on my toes.

The Georgia DCA website has a guidebook on selecting a plan preparer (which would include a plan "amender" and related services. The guidebook has a sample RFP in the appendix, as well as a lot of information on the issues for selecting someone for planning services. It discusses consultants and other forms of providing planning services. I think this guidebook, which can be downloaded, will be helpful. It was written for Georgia planners.

Good luck.

V. Gail Easley, FAICP
The Gail Easley Company