Public sector consultants are definitely in demand.  But too often those who’re just starting out as consultants find it difficult to navigate the system and get their foot in the door.  I’ve been successfully consulting to the government sector for eighteen years now, but there are definitely a few things I wish I’d known at the start that would have helped to kick-start my business.

Being a public sector consultant brings a unique set of challenges and quirks. And for those who are just getting started, at worst it can seem like a closed shop, and at best, a maze without an obvious entry point.

While running my consultancy business, I’ve learnt a lot about how to successfully sell my services to government, and in this article, I’m going to pass on some of the lessons I’ve learnt. Because I realise that without a guide book or road map for start-up consultants, getting your foot in the door with government organisations can seem impossible.  But understanding some of the rules of engagement will help you to win business.

Become familiar with government procurement processes

I know this sounds pretty dry and potentially daunting, but it’s actually straightforward.  All public sectors have procurement guidelines in place for the myriad of services they contract.  And this includes guidelines for contracting consultants.  So just head to google. For example, if I put NSW Health procurement guidelines into the search terms, one of the first listings is NSW Health Goods and Services Procurement Policy. I can download a PDF of the policy and there in the table of contents is 4.8.2 – Engagement of consultants. Perfect.  In it, I’ll find the essential information I need to figure out how to do business with NSW Health organisations.

 Register for pre-qualification schemes

Seriously consider registering for any pre-qualification schemes that are available in your sector.  Again, you’ll find these easily by googling – and they’ll also very likely be outlined in any relevant procurement policy for your jurisdiction/sector.  There are two key advantages of joining one of these schemes:

  • Firstly, it offers more favourable arrangements for competitive quotes. For example in my case, if I wasn’t registered for the relevant scheme in my jurisdiction, where a potential client wants just a single quote for a project, the budget has to be less than $30,000.  On the other hand, as an approved provider under the scheme, that budget for just a single quote increases to $150,000. You can clearly see the advantage here.
  • Secondly, it increases your network of potential clients. If I’m not approved under the prequalification scheme, I am reliant on getting work from my network of colleagues and from repeat business and referrals.  But as a member of the NSW Health prequalification scheme, any employee across NSW Health can access the list of consultants, view my capabilities, referee reports etc.  You can see how this would substantially widen the net of your potential clients.

Register with relevant websites that list contract opportunities

Another thing you may not be aware of if you’re new to consulting is that there are portals where government consultancy opportunities are ‘advertised’.  For example, in NSW where I’m based lists tender opportunities across all government sectors in this state. Once you register, you can browse consultancy opportunities by agency and register to receive notifications when a new project is listed within your sectors of interest.  These sites will also have project specifications to download, and you also upload your proposal and quote.

Dealing with direct approaches from potential clients

While I strongly advise you to take the steps outlined above, a key source of work in the government sector will be direct approaches from people in your network of past colleagues and associates. So when the phone rings or that email comes in about a potential consultancy project, how can you optimise your chances of winning the contract?  Here are my three top tips:

  1. Don’t take the client’s brief at face value, dig a bit deeper to get a better understanding of what’s required.

When I first started out I was reluctant to ring the potential client to ask them for more information – I feared that I would appear to lack confidence, or that my questions would be too basic.  Completely unfounded as it turns out.  A written brief will only ever tell you part of the story and ringing the client to flesh out the details will not only result in a better proposal, but it also makes a personal connection with the client, which can really help in the competitive process. What’s more, in my experience government sector clients expect this – they expect you to make contact and get the back story and not doing so may well work against you.

  1. Make sure your proposal demonstrates understanding of the appropriate governance arrangements for government consultancy projects.

If you’re going to consult to government, you need to build in appropriate processes for governance and decision making that fit with the culture and practice of government departments. Some examples of what I mean are:

  • Oversight for consultancy projects will often be provided by steering groups or advisory committees and so all your processes for review, feedback, advice, sign off etc. need to reflect this kind of mechanism will likely be in place.
  • Timeframes tend to be dependent on the ‘briefing up’ principle. Yes it can seem a little bit Yes Minister, but nothing ever seems to get signed off quickly as there are layers of approval processes.  So when you map out project timeframes, keep this firmly in mind and err on the side of longer is probably more realistic.
  1. Make sure your proposal demonstrates clear understanding of the client’s operating environment

In my experience, my clients in the government sector have tended to be smart, highly experienced operators with high expectations and a take no prisoner attitude.  This is not intended to put you off – in fact, most of these people have been amazing to work with.  But if you are going to win business from them they absolutely need to believe that you’re capable, that you get where they’re coming from, that you understand their stakeholders, their politics, their limitations, their challenges. In other words, you understand their operating environment.  Find subtle ways of demonstrating this in your proposal, and you’ll be on the right track.

Consulting to government can be both challenging and rewarding. And for new consultants it can seem impossible to get your foot in the door. But understanding how to do business, ensuring you are linked into potential opportunities and demonstrating that you have what it takes to operate in that environment will go a long way to winning a contract.

The really good news is that once you’ve won your first few projects and are ‘on the list’ as a service provider, as long as you do a good job, you’ll get more and more opportunities/referrals to other departments and services. This will get you well on your way to being a successful public sector consultant.

Jacq Hackett provides expert consulting services to public health agencies. And as a veteran of over two decades of consulting, she now provides coaching and development for other consultants. She is passionate about supporting the next generation of public sector consultants to become very good at what they do.

If you’ve recently made the transition from employment to consulting – or you’re on the cusp of making the move, enrol in my Public Sector Consulting Fundamentals program  – five video training sessions focusing on some of the essential building blocks of developing a successful public sector consultancy business.