Working with external vendors is routine for most organizations these days. It’s common to use them for all types of things - like developing strategic plans, building data systems, and evaluating programs.
Project Evident knows this all too well—we not only use vendors for a range of internal projects, we provide services to external nonprofits and foundations seeking support. External vendors provide cost effective, time-limited access to critical talent that wouldn’t make sense to hire onto teams full time, which makes them extremely valuable. They can be especially effective when an organization needs to complete a project within a narrow time frame; and in some cases can also provide access to a range of subject matter expertise all at the same time.
In our own work, when Project Evident provides support to an organization on a Strategic Evidence Plan it is not unusual for us to involve 4-7 of our staff on an engagement—each bringing with them a unique skill set that is appropriate for a phase of the project, but may not be necessary for that organization over the long haul. While the upside is clear, externally led/managed projects can present challenges.
For instance, when partnering with an external organization on any project, even those that may be relatively small in size and scope, but especially those that are a little larger, it is important to plan how project closeout and handoff will unfold from the start. That is the moment when your trusted partner who has been working with you side-by-side and who now intimately knows your systems and teams is no longer under contract, and that working relationship cannot be leveraged any longer. How will each element of the project continue to be managed? Who will do it? How much time will it take them? Will there be the right skills on the team? Where will the working knowledge live? And with whom? During that transition, if not properly planned for and managed, it is easy to lose project momentum and institutional memory.
Project Evident thinks about this issue a lot because many of our projects with nonprofits or foundations unfold over several months and involve many of our own staff. We build strong relationships and often feel like we are part of their teams. At the same time, though, we know our contracts will end, but for the projects to be successful the teams who we work with need to own the results and drive the work forward themselves. It would be terrible if any of our collective investments and thinking that went into a project were to lay fallow and wither on the vine.
This issue is not unique to Project Evident and Strategic Evidence Planning. Other organizations think about this a lot too. In fact, in the technology world, this issue can be even more pronounced. An organization building a new data system may contract with a vendor, who may then staff that project with 3-100+ different individuals (depending on project size). There will be a predictable build phase of work, but it will inevitably ramp down and give rise to maintenance and operations (M&O) responsibilities, often times requiring different skills. Ongoing M&O responsibilities can be even more significant/extensive if technology projects require continuous development and routine deployments of new features.
18F, an office of federal employees within the General Services Administration (GSA) that collaborates with other agencies to fix technical problems, build products, and improve how government serves the public through technology, discusses approaches for organizations in how they plan for project handoffs. They encourage the formation of "long-term teams” before the project with the vendor is over, so that the handover process is smooth, and the long term owner of the work can assume these responsibilities easily. While the article specifically describes technology projects, the parallels to Strategic Evidence Planning, and many other types of work, are uncanny.
Don’t let your agency waste knowledge and opportunity. Instead of planning for a handoff to operations and maintenance, plan for a long-term team. Instead of launching your project and then keeping it running, plan for ongoing development.
Read the article: 18F: Digital service delivery | Long-term teams, not sudden handoffs