Outsourcing to private contractors is a strategy California cities, counties, and municipal agencies use to “do more with less” in various service areas.
One approach to outsourcing that works well for the City of Carpinteria is to contract with private consultants to work as extension-of-staff to supplement our 30-person city staff during busy periods and for ongoing specialty assignments. For example, Carpinteria has long-standing extension-of-staff arrangements with consultants for services including city attorney, engineering/surveying and biology, and also contracts with the County of Santa Barbara for specialized expertise on oil and gas projects within city limits.
Despite a full-time population of only 13,000, Carpinteria is active with municipal projects as a result of its coastal location along the heavily-trafficked Los Angeles – Santa Barbara Central Coast corridor. When three separate but related Caltrans projects designed to improve mobility within the corridor converged in the city, the Community Development Department recognized additional support was needed.
Our criteria to decide whether to use extension-of-staff is based upon the city’s ability to meet project commitments with available city staff; the level of existing project commitments; and availability of appropriate in-house technical expertise.
The three Caltrans projects—the widening of U.S. Highway 101, replacement of interchanges, and the addition of High Occupancy Vehicle [HOV] lanes—were complex and long term, requiring close attention through design, environmental review, permitting and construction. With all three projects happening concurrently it would have overwhelmed our planning staff’s ability to keep up with its normal workload. As a result of the projects’ significant impacts and the cumulative time commitment needed to manage them, the city hired Dudek to provide planning and environmental services on an extension-of-staff basis.
Long-term relationships with extension-of-staff contractors, such as we have with our biology consultant, means staff and consultant have developed a clear understanding about procedures and processes. When initiating a new extension-of-staff contract relationship, four steps can help contribute to successfully managing the relationship and the project deliverables.
Establish a clear, upfront project understanding. We want the contract staff to know why the city is using a consultant firm in this particular role and what they will be doing. We scope extension-of-staff contracts carefully to make sure there is a clear understanding between the city and the firm of what is expected. For example, if a project will be controversial, it is important to appropriately scope the level of public participation and determine who will take on the task of responding to members of the public. In a small city like Carpinteria, residents have an expectation that their concerns will be addressed by the permanent staff they work with on a regular basis, not a consultant who may not be as familiar with community concerns.
Supervise closely and provide feedback. Contract personnel are not in our departments or buildings every day and sometimes not even located in the city’s jurisdiction. It is our responsibility as the contract agency to inform the contract staff of anything going on in the community or the local politics that may impact their assignment. The contracting supervisor needs to give good feedback to the consultant and keep information flowing.
Expect questions from the contract staff. I expect contract staff to ask questions to make sure they are well informed. I expect feedback on a regular basis on how things are proceeding, where city staff may need to get involved, or if something may be coming up that would be a workload issue.
Manage the relationship. The relationship of the assigned contract personnel with city staff is key. Contract staff must be experienced in their field and savvy about working with government agencies. When interviewing for these roles, previous experience working in government is often a plus for contract staff.
Carpinteria’s small town atmosphere makes one other element essential to extension-of-staff success. As a small city, the community is close to staff. We measure success partly in subjective terms, such as ‘Is the community being served well?’ We have an active and involved community so we want them to know the work is being done and done well with the community’s overarching general plan goal of maintaining the City’s small beach town character.
This article was written by Jackie Campbell, the city’s community development director, and first appeared in Public CEO.com.