Election lessons for consultants

By Bill Kaye-Blake 15/11/2012

One of the curious stories out of the US presidential election is about the consultants on the Romney campaign. Apparently, they made a lot of money:

Much of Romney’s operation, for example, appears to revolve around a close-knit
group of insiders at American Rambler Productions, which took in more than $160
million through mid-October, records show.

That’s some gravy.

And what did the campaign get for this money? Here’s one thing they got:

If you spend your time watching politics and haven’t been hiding in a deep depression since Tuesday, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about “ORCA.”  According to the Washington Post, ORCA “was designed as a first-of-its-kind tool to employ smartphones to mobilize voters, allowing them to microtarget which of their supporters had gone to the polls.”

There is now widespread condemnation of the program as being sloppy and poorly deployed.

They say that the truth is the consultants essentially used the Romney campaign as a money making scheme, forcing employees to spin false data as truth in order to paint a rosy picture of a successful campaign as a form of job security.

The last paragraph spreads the blame around — consultants and employees. Clearly, though, there is some consternation about having paid for all these consulting services and not getting a working product.

Hey, consulting isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Most projects work but some don’t. It isn’t unusual for clients to be a bit unsure about what they want. They may not figure it out until you deliver to them the wrong report. Then you have the clients who do know what they want, but it doesn’t accord with, um, reality.

What’s a consultant to do? I figure there are three strategies.

  • One strategy is to give the people what they want. You figure out what the client really wants, and then deliver it. People know what they are getting when they hire you. This approach keeps people happy — short term. There are two weaknesses to this approach. First, you aren’t really helping the clients. The answer they want may not be the right answer, so they end up with the wrong information and eventually that will have consequences. Secondly, third parties also know what you deliver. Whatever your advice, right or wrong, it’ll be suspect.
  • The second way is even more cynical. You promise what you know the client wants, and deliver the cheapest result you can get away with. An election is an interesting consulting problem. From the consultant’s point of view, the client is transient — it disappears the day of the election — so you have to get payment beforehand. From the client’s point of view, the consultant is only as good as the results, which are apparent only on election day. It’s easy to see how the ORCA debacle can happen, how a client could pay for a shoddy project.
  • The third strategy is to play it straight. You work on understanding what clients want. You tailor your research to their needs. But you also do the work as best you can, honestly, with (in the case of economic research) one eye on theory and the other on the data. Some projects won’t work out; some clients will have a different view of the world and won’t like yours. Those projects you have to take on the chin. Most projects, though, should go well, and most clients will be happy, and you’ll get a reputation for quality and consistency.

I prefer the third approach. It suits my personality and it seems to work for me. The first two sound like far too much hassle, trying to keep people happy and stay one step ahead of expectations.

But let’s not be naive. Some consultants will work the first two strategies. With $160 million up for grabs and accountability disappearing on election day, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Romney campaign ended up landing an ORCA.