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We Need Help! How to Hire an Outside Consultant

A Drop of Knowledge E-Newsletter

 August 2015

We need help! How to hire an outside consultant

Six steps for procuring professional services

by Bill Hogrewe, Director of Engineering Services (RCAP)

Occasionally water and wastewater projects require unique professional skills that you can only find outside your organization.This article will cover the procedure, including the selection process, to find and hire an outside engineer or other consultant who will best solve your problems.

Step 1: Write a Scope of Work

The scope of work should define the problem and define the goals. You need to answer some questions. What do you want to change? What are your constraints? What does the community want? Define your goals by finishing the sentence, “The problem we need to solve is…”

Next, gather all the information available from your records. Things like maps, as-built drawings, water usage records, regulatory agency correspondence, and previous studies should be listed so you can finish the sentence, “The information that we currently have is…”

Then, make a general list of the tasks that need to be done. From that list, decide what tasks will require the assistance of an outside consultant. What tasks can the water system staff do? What tasks require help? Estimate a schedule for the project, including regulatory dates and other schedule constraints. Finally, draft a one-page preliminary scope of work based on the specific tasks that you need to have done by an outside consultant.

Step 2: Write a Request for Proposal

The request for proposal (RFP) describes a process and schedule for selecting a consultant. You can ask for the proposals to include a proposed cost, you can ask for the cost proposals to be separate, or you can ask for qualifications and proposed approach only (with the cost negotiated later).

Some of the key elements of an RFP are:

  • Scope of work.
  • Schedule for the work that includes key deadlines.
  • Required elements of the proposal (what do you want to see from the applicant).
  • Details of the selection process. How will you rate and rank the proposals? This should include:
    • Schedule for evaluation and selection.
    • Process for setting up a review committee.
    • Evaluation criteria.
    • How the rating and ranking will be done.
    • How many copies of the proposal should be submitted (make sure there are enough for each reviewer and for your records).
  • Schedule and location for proposal submission (date, time, place).
  • Rights of the owner and consultant (right to appeal, right to reject all bids, etc.).
  • Type of contract (lump sum, time and materials, etc.).
  • Anticipated alternates to the scope of work.

Finally, have the RFP reviewed by your attorney to be sure it complies with your procurement policies.

Step 3: Receive and Review the Proposals

When you receive the proposals and begin your review, you should follow the procedure that you wrote in the RFP. You should also document all your actions. These two items are very important and will help you to make good decisions, protect you from protests, and will allow the applicants to know what to expect.

Step 4: Rate and Rank the Proposals

Rating and ranking the proposals will help you choose the top ranked consultant. Once again, be sure that you follow the procedure in the RFP and document all your actions. A good way to stay organized is to use a proposal evaluation form or rating sheet based on the RFP procedure.

The following is an example of a rate and rank procedure containing the key elements that you should include in your selection process. (Note: Your procedure may be different and will depend on your RFP.)

  1. Distribute to each review committee member; one copy of each proposal, the proposal evaluation form, a description of the review process, and a schedule for the review.
  2. Hold a committee meeting.
    • Discuss the schedule, process, and contacting of references.
    • Do a preliminary rating of proposals by adding up the scores from each member for each of the proposals.
    • Discusses questions and issues about the proposals.
    • Finalize the ranking.
  3. Set up interviews with the top two or three applicants.
  4. Check references on these firms.
    • This can be done by your staff or by review committee members.
    • Get a list of their last ten clients and call as many of them as possible.
    • Ask all of the references the same questions.
    • Use a form to record the results.
    • Supply the results to all review committee members.
  5. Invite each of the top applicants to be interviewed at a specific time as described in the RFP interview procedures.
    • The interviews should be completed on the same day.
    • Ask all of the applicants the same pre-prepared questions.
    • Each interviewer should fill out an interview score sheet.
    • Committee members may discuss briefly their impressions and rating of each applicant.
    • After the last interview, each committee member completes final scoring of each applicant.
  6. The committee discusses the results and all results should be compiled on a form.
  7. When they agree on their rating of each applicant against the criteria, they adopt the ranked list, and recommend it to the governing board or council for beginning negotiations to award a contract.

Step 5: Negotiate Agreement

The governing board or council starts with the top ranked applicant and negotiates the details of the contract including the cost. If you are using a Qualification-Based Selection (QBS) process, this is where you negotiate the cost and refine the scope of work. If you cannot reach an agreement with this applicant, move on to the next highest ranked applicant until you reach an agreement.

The contract can be drafted from a standard format that complies with your procurement rules. Your funder may want to review the contract and may also require a specific type of contract. Your lawyer should also review the contract before it is finalized to be sure that it complies with the applicable rules.

The contract should include the scope, budget (by task), and schedule.

Step 6: Monitor the Project

Just because the contract is signed it doesn’t mean your work is over! The final step is to monitor the project. The major tasks for monitoring the project are:

  • Comparing invoices for services to the agreed upon schedule for project completion.
  • Making appropriate progress payments.
  • Deciding when final payment is to be made at project completion.

The contract manager should stay actively involved in day-to-day activities in order to avoid cost-overruns and poor work.

Community involvement during the planning phase of any project will pay off in the long run. The consultant is there for the first part of a project, but the community has the responsibility to pay for the operation and maintenance of the project for the entire life of the facilities.

This can be illustrated with the four stages of a project:

  1. Planning: 1-to-3 years; community and consultant jointly responsible
  2. Design: 1 year; consultant primarily responsible
  3. Construction: 1-to-2 years; consultant primarily responsible
  4. Operation and maintenance: 30-to-50 years; community solely responsible

Thus, if the community does not stay involved in the planning stage it is more likely that the consultant will focus on their area of responsibility (the first three stages), and the long term needs of the community may not be adequately addressed.

Hiring the consultant best qualified for the job, even if that consultant is more expensive, at the planning stage can lead to large savings in the life-cycle cost of the project

Additional Resources

In addition to your local RCAP region (, the following organizations and publications may be helpful.

  • American Council of Engineering Companies
  • National Society of Professional Engineers
  • American Institute of Architects
  • American Public Works Association
  • American Public Works Association (APWA), Red Book on Qualifications-Based Selection Guidelines for Public Agencies, 2006.
  • Chimiklis, George and Jeff Tracy, Selecting and Working with Your Engineer, Rural Community Assistance Corporation’s Pacific Mountain Review, Volume 12, Number 3, 1994.
  • Self Help Handbook For Small Town Water and Wastewater Projects, Jane W. Schautz and Christopher M. Conway, available from The Rensselaerville Institute, Rensselaerville, NY,