If you have education, training and experience in public administration, you may enjoy far greater success as an independent consultant than you ever could find in a 9-to-5 government job.
Although it seems paradoxical, while local government downsizing has put thousands of government employees out in the street, it also has generated urgent need for independent contractors who can offer cities and towns expert advice in especially tangled, twisted areas of public policy and administration. For example, as budget cuts trigger serious disputes between city officials and public employees’ unions, local governments seek consultants with special expertise in conflict resolution and labor law. Local school boards require similar assistance. Even if you have devoted your entire career to working as a generalist and jack-of-all-trades, you undoubtedly have sophisticated command of one area in which local governments need expert help.
Become your own first client.
Before you take the leap into consulting, take time to assess your personal and professional qualifications for the job. Clients will hire you for your exceptional analytic and communications skills; they want you to demystify their problems and suggest solutions. You must have consummate faith in your ability to render complex ideas in relatively simple terms. You must feel reasonably comfortable with self-promotion, and you must have complete confidence that you can walk into new situations with the ability to identify problems quickly and negotiate satisfactory resolutions with respect for all stakeholders. You must feel comfortable traveling and spending time away from home; your family must share that comfort. You must look realistically at your savings and investments, evaluating whether you and the family can survive for the several months you need to get your consulting business up and running.
Degrees and diplomas matter in competition between and among consultants. If you promised yourself you someday would return to school for a Masters of Public Administration or a Masters of Business Administration, recognize that today is “someday.” You should launch your consulting business as you return to school, and you should dovetail your studies with the specific area you want to claim as your area of exceptional expertise. Your classes and classmates quickly will bring you up-to-date on current theories and best practices in your area. Manage your curriculum wisely and your thesis will become a landmark document in your field’s evolution.
Launch your “practice.”
Yes, you might call your consulting work “a business,” but your work has far more in common with high-powered professionals who “practice” their specialties, and you immediately command clients’ respect when you discuss your work in terms of “practice.” To launch a successful practice, take four significant steps:
• Name and claim your area of expertise. Identify just a few things you always have done well; determine what your supervisors always have praised in your work. Match your special qualifications against big needs in local governments around the nation, and then announce your “grand opening.” If you always have excelled at making processes more productive and efficient, let the world know you are available to help them save money by spending money on your efficiency measures. If you have raised millions of dollars in grant funding, let all the nation’s mayors know you can raise money for them.
• Establish your professional standing. Become prominent in a professional organization, especially seizing opportunities to present papers at conferences and symposia. Push your name and practice to the top of the search engine rankings by writing a daily professional blog dedicated to the most pressing issues currently plaguing all American cities and towns. Join the online business networks, using them to drive traffic to your blog and also to make contacts with other professionals in your field. Send introductory letters to government officials within a day’s travel of your home, scheduling “exploratory” interviews to give them an opportunity to behold your brilliance and practicality face-to-face.
• Develop your pitch. When you meet with prospective clients, convince them your services will benefit them in ways that matter most to them. City officials desperately seek efficient, effective, economical solutions to their problems; you must demonstrate how your expertise will help them deliver better city services at lower cost. More importantly, though, elected officials want “political return on investment.” Take the initiative to show them how your work translates to higher approval ratings and more votes.
• Become the boss you always wanted. Now that you run your own practice, all the initiative and accountability come from you. Set up structures and systems that keep you focused and contribute to building your practice; make sure your standard operating procedures include attention to all the professional courtesies—especially to follow-up communication with clients. To keep yourself motivated, develop a system of incentives and rewards that will inspire your best work.
Manage your practice.
To avoid all kinds of legal and tax complications, keep your business and family finances separate. When you build a solid client-base, start paying yourself a salary instead of drawing from your business funds as circumstances demand. Meet with your tax expert to assess the wisdom of paying quarterly self-employment taxes, and consult with your most trusted colleagues about the wisdom of redirecting your earnings into growing and expanding your practice. While you build your practice, regularly consider the possibility of adding private sector clients; they need your wisdom too.