Consultant in TV licence row was right to quit

Robert Chua says hired consultants fail professional standards when they openly criticise their client's decision, as one did recently in TV licence row

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 7:22pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 5:03pm

It should come as no surprise that Jenny Ng Pui-ying, the consultant who said the government had misquoted her company's assessment of the TV market during the row over free-to-air licences last year, has finally done the honourable thing and quit her job.

Clearly, Ng, the managing partner of Value Partners, must have realised she had committed the cardinal sin of speaking out against one's client, and that this was uncalled for. I see no logical reason for politicians to demand an explanation for what seems to be common sense prevailing.

Why do some consultants expect a client to accept their findings and recommendations as the final decision? In Ng's case, the government was free to decide on its own how many TV licences were awarded. Just what role did Ng think she or the company played? Was she the ultimate decision-maker, or was it the government, which paid for the report? Is the client obliged to discuss with a consultancy firm it has hired whatever it has on its mind?

Was it right for Ng to speak out and say her company did not agree with the government's decision? If consultants who don't like their client's decisions always did that, they'd probably never be hired again. After all, Ng wasn't challenged by the government to defend her work.

Personally, as any good consultant should, I will tell it as it is when anyone asks for my advice on a project within my scope of expertise. And that includes telling them to forget it, or suggesting an alternative if I have one, if I don't believe the idea will succeed. Then, it's up to them to decide what to do; I don't necessarily expect them to follow my advice. It is their investment at stake, after all.

A consultant's role is to give recommendations to the best of their ability. That's it.

Like all businesses, consultants need to sell themselves and their services. Very often, that means many will choose not to discourage a client, even if they feel a proposed business plan is flawed from the outset and will never work. To do so might mean not getting the contract.

Of course, a good consultant would not mislead a client just to secure a contract. But it's a fact that most commissioning officers prefer to appoint a consultancy firm that is likely to agree with their project, often for self-serving purposes; it makes them look good and may even help them keep their job.

If, at the start of the bidding process, the commissioning officer is a management executive, any consultancy that speaks up against a project is more likely to be excluded. If the commissioning officer is the owner or shareholder, such a consultancy may be asked to provide a one-off report detailing why they think the project will fail, and maybe offering an alternative. The client may then use this report as a reference against other firms' recommendations.

At the end of the day, it must be remembered that the client, ultimately, makes the final decision. Consultants may not like it, but they have to be professional and live with it.

Veteran broadcaster Robert Chua was the founding production manager and creator/executive producer of Enjoy Yourself Tonight at TVB, Hong Kong's first terrestrial TV station, and founder of satellite TV station CETV