An Inside Look at the Role of a Public Sector Consultant

Consulting is one of the fastest growing segments within the public sector. From transportation and technology to education and the environment, public organizations frequently partner with private-sector companies—including major consulting firms—to develop new approaches for tackling some of the world’s toughest social issues.

Many University of North Carolina School of Government faculty members are regularly called upon to advise public officials to address real-world problems and implement strategic solutions that benefit the lives of people in the state of North Carolina and across the country. This real-world insight and experience is a unique, signature trademark of the Master of Public Administration program at UNC.

To learn more about what it’s like to work as a consultant for the public sector, we recently spoke with MPA alumnus and School of Government adjunct instructor Doug Bean ’74. Bean is director of government services at Raftelis Financial Consultants Inc., one of the largest and most respected utility financial, rate, management, and operational consulting practices in the nation. Prior to joining Raftelis, Bean served as the director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities and as city manager in both Asheville and Morganton, NC.

How did you get your start in consulting?

Raftelis started as a specialty firm that provided financial analysis of utility systems. As I was preparing to retire from public service, Raftelis was in the process of expanding its services in order to help utility organizations with other issues, such as strategic planning. The company felt it was important to have someone in the company with history in this area—someone with the practical experience to help develop this part of business. So I was hired to serve as the director of government services.

What are your key responsibilities?

As the director of government services, I look at a number of projects and work to determine which ones might be a good fit for our company. I also put together proposals and help to execute them when they are ready to move forward.

How does your public service experience help you in your current role?

Consultation is a logical extension of what I did in the public sector. Over the years I have worked with a number of elected and appointed officials—I have even held some of these positions in the past. I can understand where they are at and what challenges they are facing, which is extremely helpful when it comes to navigating the political landscape of local governments and building relationships with public officials and administrative staff. By having worked in the sector, I help my Raftelis team better relate to the issues our clients experience so that we may better meet their needs.

Can you give us an example of a typical project?

Outside of financial projects, there are typically two types of projects that I work on. One is strategic planning. This involves working with elected officials, their boards, and staff to help them look at their future state. Together, we develop goals and create a plan they can implement to improve service and grow.

We also do a lot organizational assessments. This involves looking at a particular service function of the organization, such as customer service. We work with different groups to define what their organizational needs are. Then, we’ll do an assessment, make recommendations, and ideally help in key areas of the actual implementation.

What do you like most about your job?

I loved my time in local government, and this job incorporates the parts of the public sector that I enjoyed most. I get to work with people on every level—from those in upper management to those who pull off muddy boots each day. I enjoy pinpointing what can be done better and helping them to identify where they want to go.

What advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a career in consulting?

Having some public sector experience—or someone on your team with public sector experience—can be a key benefit for a public sector consultant. It can help you understand and appreciate the environment in which you are working.

What advice do you have for someone interested in working in the public sector?

The most important decision you will ever make is choosing the person you are going to work for. This will matter more than your title or position. Pick someone who will be a mentor—someone who will help you and teach you how to get where you want to go.

How did your Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree prepare you for your current role?

An MPA gets you grounded in what public service is all about. It can prepare you for working in public service, as well as in a consulting role, because it can provide you with the appreciation and knowledge you need to better understand and mentor others in the field.

While you may think of consulting in terms of specialization and being an expert in a particular area, there’s something to be said about the generalist part of the program. It really does apply in your career—even generalists have skills and experiences that apply to the consultant role.

How has UNC’s MPA program evolved since you first enrolled as a student?

The students today are a lot smarter [laughs]. When I enrolled, the program was in its infancy. It has evolved to be much more attuned to the skills you need in today’s public sector.

The UNC School of Government continues to train, graduate, and place exceptional people doing exceptional things in the public sector. It has also continued to evolve as a program where relationships are a hallmark.

What advice would you give a prospective student?

One of the biggest lessons I learned is to value relationships I developed. Back then, I don’t think we knew or understood that relationships would end up being such an integral part of the program. But relationships are one of the foundations of the program.

Seek out and value the relationships that you will develop, both with your cohort and professors. They will serve you well for your entire career.

Doug Bean is an adjunct instructor with the UNC School of Government involved in administrating Budgetopolis, a budget simulation exercise designed to help public officials make strategic long-term budget choices. In addition, he is a frequent guest lecturer and teaches the MPA Capstone Project course at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.