January/February 1994 Issue #28

How to Maintain an Open Yet Critical Mind Toward Consultants: Guidelines for Citizens' Groups and Local Governments

  1. Assume a skeptical and questioning attitude toward the opinion that you want to hear, as well as toward the opinion that you do not agree with.
  2. NEVER be intimidated by technical jargon and statistics. If you do not understand a verbal or written argument, ask for it to be explained more clearly a second time. Consultants often resort to technical language when they are least confident of their information. Few principles or conclusions are so complicated that they cannot be explained to an intelligent and determined non-expert.
  3. Inform yourself. Read on the topic. It is your only defense against becoming totally dependent upon someone else's opinion.
  4. Determine who paid for the consultant's opinion. Professionals often tell their clients what they want to hear.
  5. Get business references from the consultant and check them. Find out what work they have done in the past. Does the consultant just evaluate projects, or do they have an engineering section which would benefit if the project were declared feasible?
  6. If possible, obtain a second opinion on a project, preferably from an informed critic.
  7. Ask consultants to give you what they believe to be the best criticism of their own work. Ask consultants to identify the most uncertain calculations or assumptions in their work.
  8. Ask for the consultant's full written report. This should be provided to you in advance of a public meeting so that you can have the proper time to analyze it. If this is not done, ask for a follow up public meeting or for a guarantee that answers to serious questions will be provided in written form.
  9. Separate scientific and technical facts from policy recommendations and value judgments. Do not hesitate to identify and question the value and moral assumptions which lie behind policy recommendations. Consultants pay close attention to technical details but their reasoning on policy is often the result of an imported value system very distant from local culture and values. The simple fact that a hydroelectric dam can be built without significant negative impact upon endangered species does not mean that it should be built.
  10. Do not be discouraged if a consultant tells you that a report contains commercial secrets and cannot be released. If this is a real issue ask for a copy of the original and full document with the sensitive section blacked out. Only by requesting an original copy will you be able to determine if the "commercial secrets" also include facts that did not support the conclusion.
  11. Know, defend, and act upon your rights to obtain information and consultants' reports. Many international investment banks and foreign aid programs have written policies guaranteeing local citizens access to information, and even participation in the process of conducting feasibility and consulting studies. Ask for and obtain copies of these reports at the beginning of a project. If there are no written policies and guarantees for the situation you are involved in, invoke the written guidelines used by major world institutions such as the World Bank or EBRD and insist on the same rights.

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